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Published on: August 27, 2014
Religion and Pluralism
Interreligious Theology?

Though the official guardians of religious tradition have typically looked askance at the idea of interreligious dialogue, the practice of coming to terms intellectually with other faiths has a long and rich history.

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  • FriendlyGoat

    What we really need is some nice lay folks (key words nice AND lay) who are only half-educated in their half dozen respective major religions and who only nominally practice them, to sit down and produce for us on one sheet of paper a list of the human behaviors which are important. Then we can scrap the rest of the dogma for the half dozen, agree on some big basics and “live happily ever after”. (Yes, it’s fanciful—-but there is a lot to be said for a simple goal.)

    I have nothing against clergy and scholars who want to get together and “respect” each other. But the rest of us aren’t really going to get anything out of it. All of the experts have their clerical livelihoods or academic reputations at stake through their hierarchies and not a one of them is going to compromise away a single detail. It’s just tea and crumpets until the lay people redefine what they want to believe and fiddle with—–from the bottom up.

    • Wayne Lusvardi

      Religion can’t be reduced to merely a moral code or ethics. There are Peter Berger’s four existential questions:

      Who am I?

      Why am I here?

      How should we live?

      What happens when I die?

      To which he adds: Are we alone in the universe?

      • bruceamcallister

        Essential to any discussion, it seems to this atheist, is the acknowledgment by all believers that God is unknowable

        • bruceamcallister

          In the sense that God is undefinable. Since that is so every definition is at best partial. Make your life and make your values within each partial tradition. Obviously there are universal values, which we are and will always be struggling to define under changing circumstances, so we can deny the believers in Q, the Aztec God, participation in our dialogue.
          Only those who delude themselves that they have exclusive access to truth can disagree with this.

        • Wayne Lusvardi

          Well, there may be those who “know God” or “Jesus” or “Muhammed” or “Buddha,” but are at least tormented by doubt. Doubt being the other side of the coin of Faith. Faith needs Doubt as much as Doubt has to come to grips with Faith. Thus, cynical agnosticism is not necessarily that nothing is known or can be known of the existence or nature of God or anything Supernatural beyond the material realm; but agnosticism can also be understood as hopeful Faith with a healthy sense of Doubt.

          Unfortunately, religion has often been appropriated by states or empires for surrogate worship or paying homage to a deified emperor. This sort of social psychological substitution of emperors for God can be seen as idolatry from both a religious and an atheistic standpoint. Forms of religion that stand above the State, such as Reformation Protestantism or original Liberal Protestantism, not the state-worshiping protestantism of American Progressive Christianity, can be seen as trying to understand the Divine apart from the state or nature. Thus, it is plausible, but not sociologically likely, that atheists and believers can agree about rejection of idolatrous forms of religion.

      • FriendlyGoat

        That’s why I’d like to see LAY people from these societies give re-definition a shot.

        • Wayne Lusvardi

          Good point.

  • Rabbi Philip J Bentley

    I grew up in Skokie and my Rabbi, Karl Weiner z”l, was ordained in Breslau in 1938. He believed very strongly in interfaith dialogue and co-operation. I have followed that purpose for over half a century everywhere I have lived and worked. On missionaries it is when we Jews are in dialogue with those engaged in this practice that we can protest and be heard. Part of interfaith relations is understanding where the differences are and respecting those. It is also in understanding where boundaries need to be set. People involved in the real thing know very well that this is sometimes difficult.
    In my experience of course there are those uninterested or even hostile to interfaith dialogue. Such are a problem to those who are willing to engage other faiths in dialogue. They are our allies in this process.
    A good place to learn how this operates in the real world is a study of Vatican II and especially Abraham Joshua Heschel’s (z”l) role in it.
    As Woody Allen pointed out 90% (or whatever number he cited) of life is showing up. If you do not try, if you are not there, nothing will be accomplished.

  • ShadrachSmith

    Islam’s overarching theme is convert or die as the unchanging Word of God. The Imams are just jerking you around.

  • Gary Novak

    Although interreligious theology shares with multiculturalism a desire to respect “the other” (religion, culture), multiculturalism regards “synthesis” (or Gadamer’s “fusion of horizons”) as destructive of the otherness of the other. The spotted owl and prairie dog must be protected and remain unchanged forever. Multiculturalism sees melting pots as covert coercion. In particular, the supposed U. S. melting pot is actually a requirement for “anglo-conformity.” What could Christian/Jewish dialogue be but the promotion of “Jews for Jesus”?

    So multiculturalism prohibits genuine encounter and insists on equal respect for all parties as a fundamental right. Berger’s insistence that interreligious dialogue must include the possibility of saying no to Aztec religion violates the multicultural principle that religions and cultures can only be evaluated internally. Since, as Chomsky says, the only difference between a language and a dialect is an army and a navy, the weaker dialect has already lost when it enters into debate with the stronger language. Multiculturalism believes the only decent solution is to prohibit evaluation and celebrate all “dialects” as “languages.” We’re all winners.

    But if there is no warrant for genuine interreligious debate, what warrant can there be for intrareligious debate? If critical thought is prohibited in relation to the religions of others, how can it be permitted in relation to the inadequacies of our own religious tradition? How can we improve ourselves through self-criticism if we have abandoned all hermeneutic criticism as potentially offensive to others? Granting others the right to a hearing is an expression of Schmidt-Leukel’s hermeneutic of trust, but granting respect to all doctrines in advance is nonsense.

    As for the interminability of hermeneutic critique, that should be a problem only for those who operate within an exclusively immanent framework. Yikes, time is running out, and I haven’t found THE ANSWER! But that is not a problem for those who are able to say with C. S. Lewis, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” Temporal perception is necessarily through a glass, darkly, but the interminable shower of signals of transcendence we enjoy justifies our belief in Lewis’ probable explanation. In the meantime, let us enjoy our Wednesday morning bon bons. (And all afternoon on Wednesdays– I cannot understand my good fortune– I spend at ballet rehearsals, where I am allowed to flirt with eternity undisturbed by intellect.)

    • Wayne Lusvardi

      Gary
      I’m sure you have read Peter Berger’s risible novel “Protocol of a Damnation” where the story line is about an attempt at inter-sectarian theological “rapprochement” between two semi-secret gnostic sects. Without giving away the whole ending of the novel, things don’t turn out as intended. In fact they turn out the opposite of what was intended when it ends up in a revenge murder by yet a third unrelated religious group that seemingly appears out of nowhere. The novel is about the religious protocol that leads to that murder.

      As the sociologist Max Weber put it with his sense of the irony of history: “It is not true that good can only follow from good and evil only from evil, but that often the opposite is true.” This does not mean it is good to do evil.

      As you have quoted C.S. Lewis in last week’s forum, “right and wrong” may give a “clue to the meaning of the universe,” but the notions of right and wrong we start out with may not be what we end up with. The histories of the origins of world religions are murky and often prone to the accidental, the quirky, or possibly even the workings of the Holy Spirit on occasion for all we know.

      As Robert Musil in his novel “A Man Without Qualities” states it: “Germany’s collapse was not brought about by her immoral or decadent, but her moral citizens.” Or as Ulrich, the central character in that novel says: “Everything is moral, but morality itself is not.” So much for decadence as a basis for interreligious theology. (On Musil’s worldview see Stijn De Cauwer’s new book “A Diagnosis of Modern Life: Robert Musil’s Der Mann oline Eigenschaften as a Critical-Utopian Project, 2014, which is the first attempt to systematize Musil’s “philosophy” from his almost incoherent novelistic form).

      What was attempted in Iraq, for example, was the attempt to bring about a “democracy” between strongly fundamentalist rural Shia and orthodox-urbanized Sunni Muslims (some of whom are a secular remnant of Saddam Hussein’s regime). The outcome isn’t looking anything like what was intended, although it may have been foreseeable. And the moral outcome is not that much different that in the Vietnam War with the “boat people,” “re-education camps,” and “the Killing Fields.” From what I only partly understand, paradoxically our allies the Saudis have funded and armed the ISIS Sunnis to create a spectacle of atrocities and barbarism to re-provoke a “moral” American back into fighting their internecine war for hegemony in the Middle East with Iran. So it could be said: “morality produces immorality” or vice versa. Morality is prone to being twisted.

      The Iranian origins of the non-Muslim Bahai Faith, of which Berger has done some extensive study in the U.S., and which teaches the unity of all religions, has always been persecuted in Iran. The Bahai’s thrive mostly in modernized, pluralistic societies and the Bahai Faith seems to serve as a religious basis for inter-religious and inter-ethnic marriages, at least in the U.S. Or as Berger might put it, what brings about Bahai marriages is partly religious and partly what goes on “south of the navel.” Interreligious theology may often lead to a different sort of intercourse. An interreligious theology may produce unanticipated offspring.

      As for what Bahai has perhaps produced, there is Badi Villar Cardenas, a Lima, Peru based leader of the dangerous “Stalinist religious cult known as Haifan Baha’ism.” Haifan Baha’ism is a sort of syncretistic blend of Marxism and Bahai.

      Democracy and attempts at interreligious theology injects a sense of indeterminacy in the homeless minds of modern society. Nothing is fixed. No longer can the organization of the state be justified by a supernatural order or by the futile attempts to justify the state on the basis of a natural, environmental order. All can be falsified and disputed. God will always unveil all religious and secular orders as contingent. Perhaps on something transcendent over what is contingent and indeterminate, an interreligious theology and morality can be agreed.

      In Berger’s novel he introduces the “argument from a child smiling,” the “argument from gestures” as preceding natural law, and the “argument from hell.”

      Berger’s novel points to a radically different notion of the transcendent, of demonic and damnable evil, and of an unintended, fallible and fragile good. In it a sort of “interreligious theology” emerges about damnation, order, hope, play and humor. A sense that some acts are utterly damnable despite the relativities and contingencies of the world implies a transcendent moral order. Berger’s novel “Protocol of a Damnation” and its more theological “A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural” may thus be good starting points for an “interreligious theology.”

      • Gary Novak

        Wayne,

        By decadence I don’t mean departure from a moral code. When Huck Finn reverses his
        initial moral judgment that the runaway slave Jim should be returned to his
        rightful owner and instead recognizes Jim’s humanity, he is not being decadent.
        When C. S. Lewis says right and wrong are a clue to the meaning of the
        universe, he does not mean right and wrong as defined by the morality we begin
        with, perhaps a fraudulent moral system (the priests have a moral responsibility
        to educate the virgins). And when Berger speaks of morality as apodictically
        perceived, rather than learned in a relativistic culture, he is opening the
        door to an understanding of decadence as decayed perception. I frequently quote
        his conclusion to “The Heretical Imperative”: “It is not given to men to make
        God speak. It is only given to them to live and to think in such a way that, if
        God’s thunder should come, they will not have stopped their ears.”

        But to embrace an exclusively immanent framework and apply a “hermeneutics of
        suspicion” to everything that seems sublime (it’s really libido, selfish genes,
        class domination) is to stop one’s ears. That’s the decadence that concerns me.
        Being a card-carrying, dues-paying member of a moral majority is, of course, no
        guarantee that one’s “morality” will not generate evil. But reducing morality,
        as such, to the sublimated illusions of gene-survival machines (also known as “people”)
        is to make it very difficult to keep our eyes and ears open for clues to the
        meaning of the universe.

        I’ll keep your book recommendations in mind, but right now I’m trying to learn
        something about the history of opera.

        • Wayne Lusvardi

          One of the reasons I discussed decadence is the recent attempts since 9/11 between Catholic and Evangelical Christians to dialogue with Muslims on the decadence of modern societies and secular ideologies. One of those efforts has been by William T. Cavanaugh, a trained theologian at De Paul University, whose special field of endeavor is political theology, economic ethics and ecclesiology. Cavanaugh’s 2009 book “The Myth of Religious Conflict: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict has been an attempt to open up discussions between Christians and Muslims as to the attemts by secular societies to eradicate traditional Muslim societies in the hope of establishing new secular states in their place.

          Contra secularist Christopher Hitchens, Cavanaugh says the West is fighting in the Middle East to eradicate tribalistic, “violent, irrational, intolerant” Islam. Cavanaugh goes to war against the notion that it is justified to go to war to make the world safe for secularism. He sees a remedy in doing away with the artificial separation of religion and politics. But it is the divide between the public political sector and the personal sector that has created modern society. Without that divide civilization goes back to the “tribalism” he eschews.

          Cavanaugh, I think mistakenly, believes the Vietnam War was fought to bring Nationalistic Secularism to South East Asia. The same with the Iraq War. He sees the Secular West as the invaders and oppressors of traditional, public morality-based societies.

          Cavanaugh has no understanding that often it has been the opposite: Saudi Arabia and others have provoked the U.S. into fighting their war against Iranian expansionism for them. Prior to the Obama administration, it wasn’t the West invading the Mideast to wage a “crusadic” war against fundamentalistic Islamic countries, but Islamic nations like Saudi baiting the U.S. to intervene on their behalf in a war of hegemony against Iranian expansionism. Moreover, both the Vietnam and Iraq wars were fought based on the geopolitical strategy of the Domino Theory and fighting wars of containment; not containment of traditional religion but of radical terrorist states such as Iran taking over the Mideast.

          Thus, Cavanaugh hasn’t a clue that the Iraq War was not fought for “oil, secularism, Westernization, nationalism, democracy, or against fundamentalist Islamic religion and tribes.” His identification with the “victims” of Western Secularist Wars is more like ersatz Marxism with its emphasis on the victimization of the Proletariat by the West.
          To Cavanaugh religion is no more violent than Secularism. In fact, to Cavanaugh it is Western expansionism that has brought violence to Muslims.

          To Cavanaugh, Muslim terrorism is a reaction to Western attempts by decadent, secular Western societies to obliterate traditionalism in the name of Secularism. On this some of his readers see a common ground for Christians and Muslims to agree. Thus, Cavanaugh sees a basis for Christian-Muslim inter-religious dialogue based on victimization, anti-Colonialism, and Secular Wars fought against traditional Islamic societies. However, I do not believe this is a good way to bring about interreligious dialogue.

          • Gary Novak

            In an article at thefederalist.com (“If You Want To Stop ISIS, Here Is What It Will Take,” August 25, 2014), Angelo Codevilla writes: “The IS ideology is neither more nor less than that of the Wahabi sect, which is the official religion of Saudi Arabia.” He agrees with you that IS is supported by Saudis. But he also writes: “Wahabism validates the Saudi’s Islamic purity while rich Saudis live dissolute lives. The IS, by declaring itself a Caliphate, explicitly challenged the Saudi’s legitimacy.” While generally supporting Sunni political Islam everywhere, the Saudi royal family has every reason to feel threatened by IS. Codevilla believes that the U. S. should stop intervening fecklessly (that describes Bush and Obama) and use its power and influence to orchestrate the killing of IS in a war.

            But I confess I am less interested in Islamic realpolitik than in the broad issue you summarize in your closing paragraph: do Christians and Muslims have common ground in opposing Western attempts to obliterate traditionalism (both Muslim and Christian) in the name of secularism. Cavanaugh, D’Souza, and I think so (though I’m not familiar with Cavanaugh’s overall argument). I hear you saying that we should not exaggerate the West’s initiative here. It’s not the Muslims responding with terrorism to Western crusades but Westerners responding to Muslim attempts to involve them in internecine Islamic struggles. But the starting point of your argument seems to be radical Iranian terrorism, which, however, D’Souza sees as itself being (largely) a response to leftist cultural imperialism. (If Cavanaugh does indeed believe that Muslim targets of leftist cultural imperialism are like proletarian victims of capitalist exploitation, his assertion of common ground between Christians and Muslims would have to be a lucky guess.)

            To the extent that we are justified in seeing common ground among Christians and Muslims in opposing militant secularism, we should describe such alliances not as interreligious dialogue (they’re not talking about the differences between Christianity and Islam) but as a good strategy in the war between secularism and Abrahamic religion. Hopefully, the outcome of any such war would be neither the establishment of a theocratic state nor the criminalization of religious speech as a hate crime. The separation of church and state required by a modern pluralistic society is compatible with expressions of religion in the public square.

          • Wayne Lusvardi

            Lots of content to make me think through the issues in your reply. Angelo Codevilla is typically spot on with what is happening in the Mid East. You’re a deep thinker who makes me also think deeper. Thanks for the reply.

          • Gary Novak

            You’re too kind. I feel more like a dilettante than a deep thinker. The gaps in my knowledge continually amaze me. But you seem very well-read. It’s quite a challenge to keep up with your book recommendations and Amazon reviews. Not to mention Berger’s recommendations. (I still haven’t read Barchester Towers!)

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    Gary
    I’m sure you have read Peter Berger’s risible novel “Protocol of a Damnation” where the story line is about an attempt at inter-sectarian theological “rapprochement” between two semi-secret gnostic sects. Without giving away the whole ending of the novel, things don’t turn out as intended. In fact they turn out the opposite of what was intended when it ends up in a revenge murder by yet a third unrelated religious group that seemingly appears out of nowhere. The novel is about the religious protocol that leads to that murder.

    As the sociologist Max Weber put it with his sense of the irony of history: “It is not true that good can only follow from good and evil only from evil, but that often the opposite is true.” This does not mean it is good to do evil.

    As you have quoted C.S. Lewis in last week’s forum, “right and wrong” may give a “clue to the meaning of the universe,” but the notions of right and wrong we start out with may not be what we end up with. The histories of the origins of world religions are murky and often prone to the accidental, the quirky, or possibly even the workings of the Holy Spirit on occasion for all we know.

    As Robert Musil in his novel “A Man Without Qualities” states it: “Germany’s collapse was not brought about by her immoral or decadent, but her moral citizens.” Or as Ulrich, the central character in that novel says: “Everything is moral, but morality itself is not.” So much for decadence as a basis for interreligious theology. (On Musil’s worldview see Stijn De Cauwer’s new book “A Diagnosis of Modern Life: Robert Musil’s Der Mann oline Eigenschaften as a Critical-Utopian Project, 2014, which is the first attempt to systematize Musil’s “philosophy” from his almost incoherent novelistic form).

    What was attempted in Iraq, for example, was the attempt to bring about a “democracy” between strongly fundamentalist rural Shia and orthodox-urbanized Sunni Muslims (some of whom are a secular remnant of Saddam Hussein’s regime). The outcome isn’t looking anything like what was intended, although it may have been foreseeable. And the moral outcome is not that much different that in the Vietnam War with the “boat people,” “re-education camps,” and “the Killing Fields.” From what I only partly understand, paradoxically our allies the Saudis have funded and armed the ISIS Sunnis to create a spectacle of atrocities and barbarism to re-provoke a “moral” American back into fighting their internecine war for hegemony in the Middle East with Iran. So it could be said: “morality produces immorality” or vice versa. Morality is prone to being twisted.

    The Iranian origins of the non-Muslim Bahai Faith, of which Berger has done some extensive study in the U.S., and which teaches the unity of all religions, has always been persecuted in Iran. The Bahai’s thrive mostly in modernized, pluralistic societies and the Bahai Faith seems to serve as a religious basis for inter-religious and inter-ethnic marriages, at least in the U.S. Or as Berger might put it, what brings about Bahai marriages is partly religious and partly what goes on “south of the navel.” Interreligious theology may often lead to a different sort of intercourse. An interreligious theology may produce unanticipated offspring.

    As for what Bahai has perhaps produced, there is Badi Villar Cardenas, a Lima, Peru based leader of the dangerous “Stalinist religious cult known as Haifan Baha’ism.” Haifan Baha’ism is a sort of syncretistic blend of Marxism and Bahai.

    Democracy and attempts at interreligious theology injects a sense of indeterminacy in the homeless minds of modern society. Nothing is fixed. No longer can the organization of the state be justified by a supernatural order or by the futile attempts to justify the state on the basis of a natural, environmental order. All can be falsified and disputed. God will always unveil all religious and secular orders as contingent. Perhaps on something transcendent over what is contingent and indeterminate, an interreligious theology and morality can be agreed.

    In Berger’s novel he introduces the “argument from a child smiling,” the “argument from gestures” as preceding natural law, and the “argument from hell.”

    Berger’s novel points to a radically different notion of the transcendent, of demonic and damnable evil, and of an unintended, fallible and fragile good. In it a sort of “interreligious theology” emerges about damnation, order, hope, play and humor. A sense that some acts are utterly damnable despite the relativities and contingencies of the world implies a transcendent moral order. Berger’s novel “Protocol of a Damnation” and its more theological “A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural” may thus be good starting points for an “interreligious theology.”

  • Dagnabbit_42

    Point of order:

    “Caritas,” as understood in the Christian tradition, emphatically is not “strongly emotional empathy with others” as defined by Mr. Berger.

    On the contrary, it refers to a “theological virtue” which can, when fitting, be entirely detached from emotion and produce action which is (potentially) opposite to the actions emotional attachments would usually counsel.

    The Christian understanding of the verb “to love” is more like: “Understand what is good for the other as other, and then act to bring about what is good for the other as other where possible.” Simplifications of this idea such as “love your neighbor as you love yourself” and descriptions like Paul’s discourse in 1 Corinthians 13 help us to understand the concept.

    This doesn’t require that one feel any particular way, as you can see.

    This kind of “charity” can thus, in the Christian tradition, even be directed towards God Himself, who (Christians believe) does not have “emotions” in the animal sense of instinctual passions passively experienced or endured, but instead carries out active intentions and active value judgments which our passively-experienced animal affections and sufferings dimly reflect.

    Anyway, when Christian charity is directed towards a normal human object, it is very helpful to have empathy in order to understand the needs of the other, so as to know how to do good for the other.

    That is where empathy comes into play, in charitas.

    But it serves charitas as a strategy or means, or a source of “intel.” Charitas is not reducible to empathy. but empathy can assist charitas.

    • Wayne Lusvardi

      Berger from above: “…compassion then is exercised in an attitude of detachment, far from the emotionally charged caritas.”

  • Kepha Hor

    I’ve seen those “coexist” bumper stickers all over town, but, I still ask how all those religions can be true? Sure, talk with people, be neighborly, and all the rest, but ultimately only Jesus Christ poured out his blood to ransom many and rose from the dead on the third day.

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