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.