Two Poles in Dialogue


Years ago I had a long discussion with a member of the Bahai faith. It was interesting in many ways, but also rather frustrating. The individual would like to say that all religions in essence agree with each other– that all religions give the same answers. He would say that, and I would point out distinct differences between what his religion taught and my religion… to say nothing of the differences between other faiths. He would acknowledge the differences and then say that “No,” all religions agree. This conversation continued over several weeks over 25 years ago. Perhaps today I would be able to follow the dance of words and concepts better. But it felt like he was embracing universalism to the point of self-contradiction. People are allowed to self-contradict— that is their right. On the other hand, I also felt that his attitude was rather disrespecting. Since a unique feature of his faith was this sort of religious relativization, it seemed like the only unique feature he would intelligently acknowledge was his own. I felt that in his attempt to relativize all religions, he was saying that the uniqueness of my faith not only did not exist, but did not even deserve to be seriously discussed.

And feelings matter.

Harvie Cox has noted that interreligious dialogue must address two elements that exist between two different religions or faiths. These are the universalistic elements and the particularistic elements. Religions address universal human concerns and questions. Not only do they address common concerns, often they come up with many common answers. That being said, there are considerable differences between various religions. Ignoring these differences does a disservice to both religions. <Cox, Harvey. “Many Mansions or One Way? The Crisis in Interfaith Dialogue”. The Christian Century. August 17-24, 1998. p. 731-735.>

Focusing on the particularistic elements or “pole” emphasizes the differences, and leads to a dialogue of argument. It disrespects the commonality of humanity that leads to common themes of religious inquiry and answers.

Focusing on the universalistic elements or “pole” emphasizes the commonalities and leads to a dialogue of relativization. It disrespects the unique foci and answers of different faiths.

Centering on either pole is disrepectful to the faiths and participants in one manner or another. However, one can embrace “creative tension” where the commonalities provide context to the particularities, and the particularities provide nuancer to the commonalities. A clarification form of dialogue seeks understanding by not deemphasizing either pole. It respects the participants and the religions without underplaying or overplaying differences.

<This post is based on the first draft of a section of chapter 5 in the book I am now writing:  “Interreligious Dialogue in Christian Ministry.” Hope to finish it by October          in 2019          someday.>

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