“Poles” of Interreligious Dialogue
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.5
This author recalls having a long discussion with a member of the Baha’i faith. It was interesting in many ways, but was 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 occurred 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. It all felt rather disrespecting. He honored one pole (universalistic pole) while dishonoring the other (particularistic pole). While I suppose he was seeking to give me comfort that “we all really agree,” I felt like my faith and beliefs were being disrespected.
Our differences were ignored, and feelings matter.
Meaningful and respectful dialogue must address and honor both the particularistic and universalistic elements of the two religions. When comparing this to the three models before:
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 disrespectful of 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 nuances 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.
But Why Do Dialogue Anyway?
Perhaps it is a bit late to bring this up, but perhaps now that the major perspectives of dialogue have been presented, it is a good time to consider why one may choose to participate in IRD, particularly from a Clarification Approach perspective. This is not a complete list. But here is a start.
First, some familiarity of other faiths helps to identify the nature of that faith. Distant observation and second-hand information does not inform, it tends to misinform and confuse. Many religions utilize similar terms but with very different meanings. Some religions utilize very different terms but with very similar meanings. Both of these are difficult to recognize without practice and conversation.
Second, knowing other religions helps one to understand one’s own faith better. We learn to a great extent through comparison and contrast. For example, when Jesus shared, in the Sermon on the Mount, how the Kingdom of God “operates,” He did it by providing a series of contrasts to how the world tends to operate. Perhaps Jesus could have explained it without contrasts. He could have said that the Kingdom of God is loving, kind, forgiving, content, worshipful, and so forth. It would be quite easy to read all of that and feel pretty good about being part of the Kingdom of God. But by utilizing contrast, we discover how far we truly are from God’s ideal.
Third, knowing other religions helps one gain a sense of what are key differences and what are not. Key differences between Christianity and other religions are commonly in areas of Christology (the nature and work of Christ) and Soteriology (what is the nature and process of salvation). But some things that we might think are key characteristics of Christianity are also shared by most other faiths. Consider the Fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, and self-control). While these may be qualities that can be identified in a growing Christian, most of these qualities are also promoted by other religions. They may evidence a growing Christian, but they may not identify Christian dogma versus non-Christian dogma. This, in fact, should hardly be surprising since Paul notes that against these, there is no law— in other words most everyone thinks these are good, or at least not bad.
Fourth, through contrast with other religions we can gain a clearer understanding of the broadness of our faith. Often when our understanding of religion is limited to our own faith, we end up majoring on minor issues. By learning about other faiths, one may understand that variety within valid expressions of Christianity.
Recently there was Twitter post circulating that stated to the effect that after 100 years of mission work only 12% of the Philippines is Christian. There are some obvious problems with these stats:
Christianity and Christian missions arrived in the Philippines nearly 500 years ago, not 100 years ago.
Over 90% of Filipinos describe themselves as Christians.
So how could he come up with the statistics shared? There are several assumptions made to arrive at these statistics:
Roman Catholic Christianity is absolutely classed as non-Christian,
Real Christian missions only started with the arrival of Protestant missionaries to the Philippines close to 1900 AD.
0% of Roman Catholics in the Philippines are Real Christians
100% of Protestants in the Philippines are Real Christians
Every one of those assumptions is highly suspect, but this is not the forum to discuss this. What is important is that these assumptions are the assumptions made through non-interaction. Christianity is understood only in terms of Protestantism. Thus Protestants are Christians and other traditions of Christianity are non-Christian. But is this true?
By knowing other religions better, we can also understand that we as Christians often share far more in common than we hold different. This is not to say that differences don’t matter, but at least be open to what Brian McLaren describes as a “Generous Orthodoxy.”6