The American Interest
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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.

The Academy of World Religions at the University of Hamburg (Germany) is directed by Wolfram Weisse and Katajun Amirpur (respectively, a Protestant and a Muslim scholar). The Academy intends to foster dialogue between the world religions. It was founded a few years ago, but earlier this year it received a large grant from the German government, allowing it to greatly expand its activities. There is no great mystery as to why the German government should be interested in interreligious interaction. The focus, naturally, has been on Islam. The Academy has been involved in the training of imams in Europe. But it has also staged events dealing with Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Domestically, the integration of Muslims (several millions of them) in German society has been a great concern, especially in term of school policies. In foreign affairs, Germany, along with other Western democracies, has been drawn into the confrontation with radical Islamism. The Academy has developed an international network of very competent experts who are involved in a range of activities: dialogue between representatives of different religious traditions on substantive issues of faith and values; development of ways of teaching about religion in schools with ethnically and religiously mixed student populations; and social-scientific research about interfaith relations in urban centers in Germany, Britain, and Scandinavia. There is a stimulating mix of theoretical and practical concerns. Like John Wesley, Professor Weisse might say that the world is his parish.

Interreligious dialogue has been around for a very long time—as an effort to come to terms intellectually with religious traditions other than one’s own. Of course one should not use the term “dialogue” to describe a situation in which one party is coerced under duress to participate in a conversation whose outcome has already been fixed by the stronger party—as was sometimes staged by the Inquisition to humiliate and supposedly “defeat” representatives of Judaism. Dialogue occurs between parties who participate voluntarily and treat each other with respect. A great example from the early history of Buddhism is the work called The Questions of King Milinda, an account of a conversation between a Buddhist teacher and a Hellenistic king who was part of the heritage left in Central Asia by the conquests of Alexander the Great. (The Greek name of the king was probably Menander.) Similar dialogues were initiated by enlightened and genuinely interested rulers: Between Muslims, Christians, and Jews during the (intermittently) tolerant “conviviencia” periods of the Caliphate of Cordoba—with the same mix of parties at the Hohenstaufen court in Sicily—and between Muslims, Hindus, and Christians at the court of the Mughal Emperor Akbar.

Needless to say, these episodes were frequently followed by a return to religious persecution and repression. The official guardians of a religious tradition have typically looked askance at such experiments of tolerant exchange. An instructive example of such experiments is the mission to China of the Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci (1552–1610). Ricci was convinced that Christianity could only be made plausible in China if it was presented in Chinese garb—in his case literally. Ricci acquired a perfect command of Mandarin, dressed and lived like a Confucian scholar. He believed that Christianity and Confucianism were quite compatible, the former being a harmonious completion of the latter. This missionary strategy did succeed in making some converts. The sticking point, which eventually led to the downfall of this strategy, was Ricci’s attitude to the veneration of ancestors, a key feature of Confucian ritual. He thought that these ceremonies were the simple expression of a praiseworthy respect for one’s elders—a sort of Chinese translation of the Biblical Commandment to honor father and mother. Therefore, Chinese Christians should have no problem following this Confucian practice. Other Catholic missionaries vehemently disagreed, especially the Dominicans (who, among other contributions, staffed the Inquisition, which earned them the nickname “Domini canes”/”the dogs of God”). In 1645 the Holy Office of the Inquisition banned the “Chinese rites.” Mercifully, Ricci had died a natural death by then. Something of his legacy must have lingered on, because in 1715 Pope Clement XI found it necessary to reiterate the ban in the decree Ex illa die.

The case of Matteo Ricci is instructive because it shows both the promise and the peril of amicable contact between religions. The promise is what much later Catholic missiology was to call “enculturation”—the faith, though originally coming from the outside, comes inside to become part of a culture. This has happened many times in the history of religion: Christianity, originally an obscure Jewish sect in a remote province of the Roman Empire, spread throughout this Empire, became Hellenized and Romanized, and eventually a foundation stone of Western civilization. Buddhism, deeply rooted in the religious world of India, spread beyond it—“the dharma went east”—and in the process became “sinified” and a constituent element of the cultures of China, Japan, and other countries far from its origins. And Islam burst out of Arabia and created a civilization that reached from the Atlantic to the China Sea, in the process becoming indigenized, “encultured”, in different ways in what became the Arab world, Iran, and Indonesia. This is promising because it demonstrates the adaptability of religious traditions and their universal potential. The peril is that those who represent a faith “go native” (as anthropologists put it) and forget what they were about in the first place. This is precisely what the Dominicans accused Ricci of. As human beings keep talking with each other, they influence each other. (In the sociology of knowledge we call this “cognitive contamination.”) They exchange messages, which can be greatly enriching. It can also mean that some forget what they were going to say.

The Protestant missionary enterprise which exploded in the 19th century created large bodies of knowledge about every religion under the sun. Even if the original impetus was missiological—“understand in order to convert”—it also aroused sheer curiosity and disinterested scholarship. A pivotal event in this interfaith encounter was the World Parliament of Religion which met in Chicago in 1893. It was a big event, attracting wide public attention. Among other things, it brought to America prominent teachers of Hinduism and Buddhism, and the first Bahá’í missionary. I happened to visit the centenary celebration in 1993, also meeting in Chicago. An uninformed visitor looking through the program and looking at the book exhibit might conclude that Christianity is a small minority sect in America. Diana Eck (a Hinduism expert at Harvard) has described the United States as the most religiously diverse country on earth; this may be an exaggeration, but not by much. Interest in dialogue between religions has grown exponentially throughout the 20th century, not only in this country but also in Europe, where immigration has created large non-Christian (especially Muslim) communities. Three highly influential religious figures of the last century put interfaith dialogue at the center of their thought—the Protestants Ernst Troeltsch and Paul Tillich, the Catholic Karl Rahner, and the Jew Martin Buber. The Vatican and the World Council of Churches have created very active departments to foster this dialogue. The Hamburg Academy was founded when the issue of interreligious relations is at the center of German public attention (especially the question of what a truly indigenized Islam is and should be in Germany)

The Academy produces publications in both German and English. A notable English publication is Wolfram Weisse et al. (editors), Religions and Dialogue: International Approaches(Waxmann, 2014). I found particularly interesting an article by Perry Schmidt-Leukel (a German Protestant theologian), “Intercultural Theology as Interreligious Theology.” The terminology needs clarification: As I understand it, “intercultural theology” means that the faith is explained in terms that are comprehensible to people from different cultures; “interreligious theology” means that a thinker integrates the faith with ideas that come from another faith. An obvious example would be from early Christian history. “Intercultural theology”: Jesus and his disciples spoke Aramaic; as their (originally oral) traditions were promulgated beyond their original Jewish environment, they were translated into Greek, the lingua franca of the late Hellenistic era. This exercise became “interreligious theology” as the faith came to incorporate ideas from Greek philosophy, presumably beginning with the prologue to the Gospel of John and eventually leading to the complex Greek formulations of the Christological creeds. Schmidt-Leukel proposes four principles that should govern interreligious theology. First, the theologian should practice a “hermeneutic of trust”—that is, proceeding in the trust that “theologically relevant truth is not only found in one’s own tradition, but also in those of other religions.” Two: One should therefore “investigate the compatibility of different, at times even seemingly contradictory tenets of faith and pathways of religion. Reference is made here to a phrase by Wilfred Cantwell Smith, an important American proponent of dialogue between religions—“an invitation to synthesis.” Three: The conviction that reality is one, although there are different perspectives about it. And four: This sort of theological enterprise will always be incomplete, a work in progress. There will never be a final, all-embracing summation.

I find it difficult to disagree with these principles. They are particularly helpful in describing an attitude with which to approach dialogue, rather than a methodology by which to conduct it. It is hard to engage in dialogue with people one cannot trust (because they are not serious or have hidden motives, such as wanting to convert you, or to trap you in contradictions so as to demonstrate their own superiority). It is certainly futile to attempt dialogue with fanatics. The term “synthesis” makes me uneasy. Some things cannot so easily be synthesized. Imagine an exercise to find common ground between Biblical faith and the Mesoamerican religions that believed in the necessity of human sacrifice in order to feed the gods. (Fortunately there are no extant Aztec priests who could be invited to interfaith conferences.) But synthesis may also be difficult, indeed misleading, in dialogue where neither side is morally reprehensible. Both Buddhism and Christianity hold high the virtue of compassion. But Christian compassion, caritas, has always been understood as a strongly emotional empathy with others. At least in Theravada Buddhism there is the belief that any strong emotion produces karma, which prevents liberation from the endless cycle of reincarnations; compassion then is exercised in an attitude of detachment, far from the emotionally charged caritas. Any synthesis must not disregard this difference. (Mahayana Buddhism is another story, with its belief in the power of Bodhisatvas—individuals who have delayed their entry into Buddhahood out of compassion for all the “sentient beings” who are still mired in unenlightened darkness.) Put differently, dialogue must not be a night in which all cats are grey.

Yes, reality is one, and there are different perspectives on it. But not all perspectives are equal. John Hick, British theologian is one of the most influential proponents of interreligious dialogue. He has used a telling metaphor to make his point: Imagine religions as planets circling the sun of ultimate reality. The perspective of each will necessarily be different, though there is only one sun. Hick suggests that what is needed is a “Copernican revolution” in theology. One’s own planet is not the only one; it is one of many. In each tradition the other’s perspectives must be taken into account in one’s own theology. What Hick’s metaphor leaves out is the possibility that some planets may not be facing the sun at all; they are facing the other way: Thus their perspective is irrelevant. One of Hick’s best known books has the title God Has Many Names. I would bet that one of the names is not Quetzalcoatl, the Aztec god to whom thousands of individuals were routinely sacrificed to feed his voracious appetite for human blood. Put differently, in dialogue between religions it is sometimes as important to say no as to say yes—sometimes for moral reasons (God stopped Abraham from sacrificing Isaac), sometimes for epistemological ones (Francis of Assisi did not embrace a leper in an attitude of detachment). Finally, one can readily agree that dialogue will always be an open-ended exercise, as very different people keep coming to it. There will never be a final summa theologica.

Dialogue between religions has become a cottage industry in recent decades. Many of its products—books, periodicals, conferences—have been very useful in terms of intellectual and spiritual insights. I also think that the project of “interreligious theology” is both challenging and worthwhile. Pluralism makes it nearly inevitable. It is important, though, to keep in mind that pluralism brings about a much broader dialogue between people who don’t read books or periodicals, and who have never attended a conference. This is dialogue between friends and lovers who come from different religious backgrounds—or between neighbors, coworkers, even children in kindergarten who tell each other about the curious rituals practiced in their homes. The Apostle Paul knew why he warned Christians against being “yoked together with unbelievers.” This means above all not to eat with them and not to marry them (what anthropologists call, respectively, “commensality” and ”connubium”). All sustained and amicable conversation leads to cognitive contamination, especially dinner conversation and pillow talk. We know all too well how such peaceful conviviencia can be swiftly and brutally disrupted by propagandists of hatred. Of course there can also be education and propaganda to support conviviencia, best by religious institutions themselves. Finally religious peace must be protected, and if necessary, enforced by the force of law.

  • 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.