Interreligious HermeneuticsLast modified: February 7, 2012
Catherine Cornille and Christopher Conway, ed. Interreligious Hermeneutics. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2010.
This collection of essays, compiled by Catherine Cornille and Christopher Conway, offers an impressive introduction to several of the debates within interreligious hermeneutics; from David Tracy’s analysis of the Western hermeneutical tradition to Reza Shah-Kazemi’s investigation of the relationship between the Qur’an and the Gospel of John, Interreligious Hermeneutics covers a good deal of ground within the fields of both Western hermeneutics and interreligious studies. The great feat of this book, however, is its willingness to consider the way interreligious dialogue can be fruitful for intra- as well as inter-religious studies. As Cornille points out in her introduction, hermeneutics is an avenue for the recovery of resources within one’s own tradition as well as a useful tool for interreligious conversations. This emphasis on both intra- and interreligious dialogue makes this collection a commentary not only on comparative studies of religion, but also on our own pre-understandings of what religion is. After all, to define one’s own religion in relation to hermeneutics is to consider all religions as borderlands, mosaics of tradition, always open to interpretation.
David Tracy, in “Western Hermeneutics and Interreligious Dialogue,” begins this undertaking by focusing specifically on the Western hermeneutical tradition and its indebtedness to Western humanism. In particular, he outlines Hans Georg Gadamer’s emphasis on conversation and dialogue as a fitting analogy for the process of interreligious studies. For Tracy, dialogue is the basis for all interreligious conversations; this dialogue is founded upon a fundamental willingness on the part of both dialogic partners to listen to each other with respect and dignity. This dialogue can be interrupted by repressed disruptions within one or more of the participants. In these cases, the conversation partners must be willing to suspend dialogue for a period of time until those repressed distortions find resolution. In other words, interreligious dialogue requires patience, and a certain amount of determination on the part of both dialogic partners to overcome their own repressed, subconscious distortions. In any case, if these distortions are overcome, the eventual goal of interreligious dialogue becomes the realization of the limits of that dialogue. This realization is the encounter with the “Impossible,” as Tracy deems it. Toward the end of his essay, Tracy points out that this notion of the “Impossible” has been understood by a number of phenomenologists, theologians, and authors to be love. Love is the impossible, the impassible, and it is toward a shared sense of this love that interreligious dialogue moves.
Warner Jeanrod picks up where David Tracy leaves off, and argues in his essay “Toward an Interreligious Hermeneutic of Love” that the task of all interreligious understanding is love. For Jeanrod, the omnipresence of interreligious encounters in the world today is a call for communication and dialogue between and within religions, communication that must be founded upon mutual love and respect for one another. This love, as the “Impossible,” is itself a religious experience, and in the shared experience of this love interreligious dialogue becomes a unified space, a space not owned by one religion over against another. With this said, if one understands interreligious dialogue as fundamentally aimed toward love, love must be defined well.
The risk of both Tracy’s and Jeanrod’s interpretations of interreligious hermeneutics is that love might be misinterpreted as the absorption of one religion into another. In her essay “Absorption or Hospitality: Two Approaches to the Tension between Identity and Alterity,” Marianne Moyaerty confronts this issue, by comparing the work of George Lindbeck and Paul Ricoeur. For Moyaerty, Lindbeck represents the camp within interreligious studies that attempts to absorb another’s religious tradition within one’s own. Lindbeck’s approach attempts to protect one’s own religious tradition from destruction. The problem, however, is that Lindbeck’s notion of absorption implies the destruction of another religion. Moreover, even the religion that absorbs another tradition becomes something different, something transformed. Ricoeur on the other hand represents the approach within interreligious studies that aims primarily to be hospitable to all religions. Ricoeur’s approach looks to be respectful without attempting to overpower or absorb another tradition. Such an approach honors the differences between religious traditions, while still making room for dialogue and mutual cooperation—even fellowship—among religions.
By conceiving of interreligious dialogue as hospitality rather than absorption, Moyaerty—following Ricoeur—rethinks interreligious studies as a generous, sympathetic undertaking. In this way, she moves the conversation away from an emphasis on dialogue outright, and into a realm of action. John C. Maraldo, in “A Call for an Alternative Notion of Understanding in Interreligious Hermeneutics,” continues with this line of thought; he points out that the term “Interreligious Hermeneutics” already delimits understanding to a particular framework, oriented first and foremost toward language. Maraldo argues that the history of interreligious hermeneutics is saturated with a text-oriented conception of understanding that prioritizes the reading of texts over against the embodied enactment of religious practices. Following Tracy’s and Jeanrod’s essays, both of which focus on the centrality of dialogue and conversation within interreligious hermeneutics, Maraldo’s argument seems a necessary one. Even for Gadamer and Ricoeur, hermeneutics is understood in relation to one’s encounter with a text. Whereas Ricoeur frames this encounter as the projection of a text into the reader’s life, Gadamer considers this encounter as the reader’s entrance into a text, where he or she can “play.” In either case, this encounter is framed as text-based. Religion, as Maraldo points out, includes language, but it is certainly not bound by language. Maraldo offers a strong push-back against this emphasis on text and language within interreligious hermeneutics. For him, interreligious hermeneutics must enunciate a more inclusive conception of understanding—in particular, a conception that includes the embodied experience of religious practices—in order to encounter other religions with any semblance of sympathy.
After these four essays, Cornille and Conway include several comparative studies of religions. Reza Shah-Kazemi, for example, considers the relationship between the Qur’an and the Gospel of John. David Eckel looks at shared spaces within Buddhism and Christianity, while Joseph O’Leary investigates the Buddhist notion of “Skillful means” (Upaya) as a hermeneutic concept. Each of these essays provides in depth analyses of the religious traditions and concepts discussed. However, these essays only function because of the strong groundwork built by Tracy, Jeanrod, Moyaerty, and Maraldo. Only after firmly establishing the complexities of interreligious hermeneutics do the editors include comparative studies themselves. Still, a lot more could be said about the prejudices and pre-understandings that plague interreligious hermeneutics, and many more religious traditions deserve attention. A feminist reading, for example, seems lacking from this collection, as does a post-colonial reading of interreligious dialogue and hermeneutics. Moreover, the comparative studies included in this text are decidedly oriented toward major religious traditions such as Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism. Interreligious studies tend to focus almost exclusively on these major world religions and disregard minor and developing religions. This prioritization of major religious traditions is itself a religious hermeneutic that emphasizes religious identification and population size over against all else. More study is needed of both major and minor religious traditions with particular respect given to what designates a religion as worthy of study.
The great strength of this book is its ability to bring into focus the preunderstandings that risk dismantling any and all attempts at inter- and intra-religious dialogue. The book’s emphasis on Western scholarship is necessary in the sense that hermeneutics is itself a Western tradition. By focusing on this Western backdrop, Cornille and Conway highlight their own heritage and therefore construct a book that is honest about its tradition and perspective. That is, by enunciating what interreligious hermeneutics is and can be for the West this collection of essays elucidates and critiques the Western tradition’s approach to interreligious dialogue in an attempt to hone that tradition into a more hospitable and generous one.
- Scott Riley
The gradually emerging field of comparative theology has been a breath of fresh air in several pockets of interreligious study. As the study of this field persists, it is becoming evermore apparent that it contains implications as well as assumptions that must be thoroughly examined, both to unveil dangers and reveal fruitful arenas of discourse. This recent volume, masterfully edited by Cornille and Conway, demonstrates one such fruitful arena: the engagement in and definition of “interreligious hermeneutics.” In a comparative field that has widely rejected “theology of religions” argumentation (especially James Fredericks and Francis Clooney), interreligious hermeneutics are certainly needed if the religious “other” is going to be engaged with and theologized about/with in any significant way. This highly relevant collection of essays seeks to provide scaffolding for deeper and truer meetings across the borders of belief.
David Tracy - “Western Hermeneutics and Interreligious Dialogue”
Tracy kicks the volume off with a kind of “berry-picking” venture through the giants of western hermeneutics, selecting the most promising facets of Hans-Georg Gadamer’s (et al.) interpretative frameworks and casting them into the basket of interreligious dialogue. His treatment of Gadamer’s thought, though necessarily cursory, is masterful; even the most nascent hermeneutician would have difficulty escaping the pages without a lucid appreciation for Gadamer’s dialogical model, wherein new understandings are reached via the back-and-forth progression of a dialogical movement between two (or more) “horizons” (2-10). Tracy’s discussion highlights a number of nuanced points, but standout among them are: the necessity of self-risk once one has entered into a genuine (Gadamerian) dialogue (2-4) and the now-virtually-requisite recognition of the linguistic and historical conditionedness of all interpretative endeavors (5-7). Due to the elemental trust that thrums at the root of this dialogical process, Tracy fittingly terms this Gadamerian-dialogical model a “hermeneutics of trust.”
Predictably, the next model examined draws on the (in)famous “hermeneutics of suspicion.” In a move that is both theoretically interesting as well as pedagogically insightful, Tracy frames these suspicious interpretative moments as “interruptions” within the dialogical model. He notes that interruptions of this kind may be needed for two reasons: clarification or argumentation of an unclear point (11-13), or for the purpose of unveiling a “systemic distortion” in the text or person being dialogued with (13-15). Such “distortions”, according to Tracy, can take the form of any other-reducing “ism” or “phobia:” homophobia, sexism, racism, elitism, etc.
No doubt aware of some of the critiques leveled against suspicious hermeneutics, Tracy helpfully illustrates their consonance with certain religio-theological categories (he uses Christian “sin” and Buddhist “avidya” as controlling examples, 14-16). Following this discussion, Tracy discusses the “limits” of dialogue, describing the somewhat ineffable manner in which dialogue reaches a natural, and possibly epiphanous, end: “[One] experiences and understands one’s limit as one’s finitude and historicity while also possibly (one must wait) experiencing a reality that impinges on one from somewhere beyond one’s limits” (20). The essay rounds out with a protracted discussion of the contributions from both Heidegger and Derrida, though, insofar as an actual hermeneutical methodology is presented, the first half of the essay is more useful.
A brief critical point can be made against Tracy’s embrace of suspicious hermeneutics. Tracy is fond of paraphrasing Adorno and claiming that there “is no innocent text” (see esp. 13-14, 16-18). While most observers of the postmodern scene (including myself) would want to agree out-of-hand, the hydra of epistemological difficulty raises one of its horned heads. For how does Tracy (or Adorno et al.) know that there is no “innocent” text? In fact, what does an innocent text look like? If we don’t know what an innocent text looks like, how can we possibly say that one does not exist, or that a text we have dubbed non-innocent is not, in fact, inaccurately so dubbed? The same questions hold for the “systemic distortions” that Tracy claims must be uncovered. (My point is not far afield from C.S. Lewis’ old statement that “a man cannot call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight one.”) In fact, a “deconstructive” analysis of Tracy would note that his claim against something like “homophobia” locates significant strains of conservative religion (including Muslim, Jewish, Christian, and Hindu traditions) close to what he calls “psychosis” (14); this is a move which could not, by most standards, be called open or dialogical.
Werner Jeanrond – “Toward an Interreligious Hermeneutics of Love”
Jeanrond’s highly original contribution to this volume, while not without difficulties, is commendable on several fronts. For one thing, it is only one-third the length of Tracy’s loquacious piece, making its points punchier and its overall argument easier to follow. That argument proceeds by briefly describing some of the more prominent positions in interreligious study and offering critiques of them. Hans Küng’s search for the humanum, a kind of vague ethical-truth principle thought to be secreted away within each religion, is welcome for its ability to encourage dialogue, but unfortunate in its tendency to ignore actual religious practice and particularity (48). Hickian pluralism provides the valuable service of pulling up a chair for everyone at the table of dialogue, but (according to Jeanrond) presents a necessarily “theological” umbrella, which cannot help but distort the religions it encompasses, especially if their theological trajectories differ from it (49). Finally, the comparative theologians (Keith Ward, Frank Clooney, etc.) are commendable for their more humble hermeneutic, which characteristically seeks to disclose its own theological starting point and even use it as a tool for dialogue, but Jeanrond still offers an—admittedly vague—critique: “[T]his approach always risks losing sight of the ongoing global and potentially dynamic interaction between different religious traditions….” (50).
In contrast to these three approaches, Jeanrond opts to build on Catherine Cornille’s notion of interreligious empathy. Rather than seeking to attain some kind of “hard and fast” interreligious understanding, an appropriate hermeneutic should focus on the attitudes brought to the conversation itself; it is this line of reasoning that opens the gate for Jeanrond’s “hermeneutic of love.” He contrasts this with both the universalist hermeneutic, which reduces, and the relativistic hermeneutic, which trivializes. The hermeneutic of love aims for “the building of larger bodies of understanding and self-understanding in which not only an intensification of relationality may be explored, but also an examination of truth—always accompanied by critical and self-critical moves” (57).
While this reviewer admires Jeanrond’s passion and desire to plumb unique hermeneutical depths, there is at least one major hitch in his program which can be briefly circumscribed. At one point late in the article, Jeanrond’s comes down rather hard on (Christian) thinkers who have tried to distinguish between “Christian love” and “other types of [less good] love.” Jeanrond then proclaims that no religion which forms its identity in a manner which “excludes other men, women, and children from the social and communicative miracle of love” will be equipped for adequately dealing with religious otherness (58). However, this gutting of religious particularity handicaps Jeanrond on two fronts. First, it appears to render him guilty of the same critique leveled against Hans Küng, for what is a non-religiously-particular conception of love except a kind of Küngian humanum, a reductive, ethical discourse? And second, it reduces the force of his already-weak critique of comparative theology, a method which does not flinch in the face of theological particularism (or at least often claims to not do so).
Marianne Moyaert – “Absorption or Hospitality: Two Approaches to the Tension between Identity and Alterity”
Moyaert’s fantastic piece hinges on the juxtaposition of two thinkers: George Lindbeck and Paul Ricoeur. She notes that both universalistic and (purportedly) reductionistic discourses in the study of religion have lent credence to the postliberal school of late, encouraging some (typically Christian) scholars to postulate a “cultural-linguistic” model for understanding religious phenomena and communities (61-65). Lindbeck is the primary focus here, and Moyaert details his hallmark notions of untranslatability and intratextuality, ideas which (she claims) construct a kind of inverse hermeneutics of suspicion arrayed against every attempt to understand the other (67-68). Given the volume’s trajectory thus far, one would suspect that Moyaert is not in league with the postliberals (even if one had not read her latest work, Fragile Identities). But, in a surprising—and welcome—turn, she does not argue against Lindbeck’s schema from the perspective of secular, philosophical hermeneutical theory. Rather, she makes a theological argument.
However, since the argument is framed theologically, Moyaert has many bases to cover in order to shore it up. She does well for the most part, making several well-honed points: “God is in constant dialogue with the world…”; God has exposed God’s self to the risk of ‘loss of meaning’; postliberalism “reifies the revelation” and ties “God” too tightly to the text; postliberalism insulates traditions rather than maintaining an appropriately critical attitude toward them; “the metaphor of absorption minimizes the contribution of the believer [i.e. individuality and conditionality in the practice of religion] (71-73). She makes a few more points than these, but they are mostly redundant, serving more to nuance these premises than articulate new ones.
Her critique thus leveled, Moyaert moves on to promoting an alternative way of engaging interreligious dialogue. In keeping within the bounds of her controlling theme of “identity”, she offers a constructive and illuminating engagement with Paul Ricoeur. She highlights the narratival nature of identity in Ricoeur’s thought, contrasting it with the “set boundaries” understanding of Lindbeck. It is this perpetually-forming notion of identity that leads Moyaert to promote a flexible and open approach to dialogue, based around a conception of “linguistic hospitality” (81-86). The essay terminates with a helpful summation of the preceding points: “Lindbeck sees identity as a ‘place to start,’ whereas Ricoeur speaks of identity as a task, a wager, a never-ending project” (87).
While this reviewer certainly appreciates Moyaert’s willingness to take on a theological hermeneutical position (postliberalism) in terms of theology, it is at that juncture that a critical point might be raised. I would say that it appears Moyaert has still slightly under-determined the theological heft of postliberalism and in so doing has misrepresented slightly. She claims that a theological point against Lindbeck’s schema is the idea that God is constantly communicating with the world and thus the community(ies) of God should also be communicating across religious boundaries, and she claims that Ricoeur notion of narrative identity is a better way of conceiving personhood. But the reason the Lindbeckian school of thought shares affinity with so-called “narrative theology” is because it does see God continuing to work out a great and changing narrative in the lives of believers, and that God is constantly communicating in through his Spirit and through various revelatory “events” (e.g. Karl Barth’s theology of revelation). The issue is not whether or not God speaks; that is a misstep (or misconstrual) in Moyaert’s argument; the issue is whether or not God speaks to everyone, in what manner he speaks, and what communities are positioned to receive God’s truths most readily.
John C. Maraldo – “A Call for an Alternative Notion of Understanding in Interreligious Hermeneutics”
This essay makes a claim for a sort of “paradigm shift” in the hermeneutical discussion. Werner Jeanrond’s earlier piece went this direction also, but was really calling for more of a attitudinal change. Maraldo is calling for a methodological change, a content change, and an expansion of what is “considered” when hermeneutics is being done. The premise of the article, though laid out with appropriate nuance, historical argumentation, and attention to detail, is relatively simple: Non-textual communication, practice, and lived life need to play a far greater role in what is considered in the project of interreligious hermeneutics.
Maraldo’s argument focuses first on the fact that hermeneutics should be dealing with language and communication, but that hitherto those elements have been substantially reduced to only include textual manifestations (93-95); however, this text-based understanding of hermeneutics is fallacious because “not all language is textual” (96). Maraldo wants to speak of language as a situated, lived, and culturally-attenuated phenomena and event (the terms are my own, but appropriate, see 96-97). He then proceeds to make observations and sensitive critiques to the manner in which understanding has been “bound to” texts by many great hermeneutical thinkers (including Heidegger, Gadamer, and Ricoeur [97-106]). Following this, his alternative “sense” of language is elucidated, drawing helpful examples from inter-monastic dialogue between Benedictine and Zen monks to illustrate the power of religious practice and shared religious life to communicate without the aid of texts or even mutually-understood language (106-110). Hermeneutics should focus more on these sorts of valuable interactions, he claims, or else much of what is actually religious will never be dialogued about at all.
Maraldo’s insights and suggestive renovations are very welcome in this volume, but some difficulties attend his argument. Throughout the article, Maraldo is bothered by definitions of religion that focus overmuch on the notion of “beliefs.” As should be clear from his argumentation, he prefers a focus on practice and lived devotion rather than religious philosophy, theology, or doctrine. However, the uniqueness afforded by this focus is nearly equaled by its hollow resonance on questions of meaning, utility, or intra-religious understanding. Maraldo focuses on performing the cultic acts of other religions, and thus coming to some kind of fresh understanding. But why do religions perform cultic acts? Because, even if not every believer is aware of it, the rituals and chants and other actions are powerfully fettered to doctrinal realities (the worship of a deity, expiation of sin, cultivation of no-mindedness, seeking of enlightenment, etc.). So what is the usefulness of an approach to dialogue that glosses this reality? Performances of religious life are certainly important, and Maraldo does well to highlight their neglect in hermeneutical discussion. But without an acknowledgment of the imbedded doctrinal notions and thorough interaction with them, it is difficulty to see how his proposed method differs greatly from the “participant-observer” interactions common in anthropology of religion.
Reza Shah-Kazemi – “Light Upon Light? The Qur’an and the Gospel of John”
Basing his article on the Muslim understanding of the Qur’an as a “confirmer” and even “protector” of scriptures that have been revealed prior to it, Shah-Kazemi turns in an extended study in comparative scripture between the Gospel of John and diverse Qur’anic passages. The essential “hermeneutical move” of the article is not original, nor does it aim to be. Shah-Kazemi argues that, from his Sufi-leaning Muslim perspective, the Qur’an characterizes its relationship with other holy writings as exemplified by “reciprocal confirmation and mutual illumination” (116). The scriptures do not say the same things, but they reflect similar truths, and can be read in light of each other. Though Shah-Kazemi is drawing primarily on esoteric traditions of interpretation pulled overwhelmingly from the more mystical side of Islam, one is struck by certain resonances between his hermeneutical claims and the program of a comparative theologian like Frank Clooney (see, e.g., Clooney’s Beyond Compare or select chapters on methodology in his Comparative Theology). But the program also smacks vaguely of certain “kernel within the husk” modernist takes on religious scripture, illustrated by such phraseology as “essentially identical and formally diverse” (121)—once the husks of apparent contradiction are stripped away by mutually illuminating co-readings, the kernels of essential similarity appear.
This “hagiographical pluralism” is articulated clearly but swiftly within the first few pages of the piece, and from there Shah-Kazemi moves to application. The Johannine passage he selects is notably ambitious: the Prologue of the gospel, renowned for its highly philosophical articulation of the Logos doctrine and the basis for a good deal of christological doctrine in the history of Christianity. Given the avowed Muslim disagreement with the doctrine of Christ’s divinity, a more volatile passage could have scarcely been chosen by Shah-Kazemi. He begins the co-reading process with a strident theological move. In short, he claims that the Logos principle (i.e. the Second Person of the Trinity, in Christian orthodoxy) serves the same kind of mediating function as the idea of Muhammedan Reality/Reality of Realities, a Sufi notion of a manifest immanence which conveys the reality of Allah, who is utterly transcendent (124-126). Many other comparative moments follow, but this main idea forms the core of the supposed internal unity between Christian and Muslim scripture.
Though Shah-Kazemi carries out his program with robust detail and sensitive statements of interreligious commiseration, his mystically-oriented “esoteric hermeneutic” eventually results in the reduction of the specific and salvific significance of Jesus (“the particular theological dogma of the Word assuming flesh as Jesus can be confirmed insofar as it can be transformed into a universal metaphysical principle: the Word is manifested… by all divinely appointed Messengers” ) and a near-deification of Muhammad (“it should be stressed that the Prophet himself referred to his essential reality in clearly prehuman—and thus suprahuman—terms” [see 132-133]). This is unfortunate, as it causes Shah-Kazemi’s hermeneutic—meant to bridge a gap in religious understanding between Christians and Muslims—instead arrives at conclusions that are virtual heresy for a vast number of mainstream Christians and Muslims. But the article is interesting and true to its intentions, broaching many interesting areas of Muslim-Christian doctrinal convergence or near-convergence.
Malcolm David Eckel – “Show Me Your Resurrection”: Preaching on the Boundary of Buddhism and Christianity
Eckel’s essay is comfortable with ambiguity. Whereas many of the other contributors to this volume have struck out on the choppy sea of well-etched hermeneutical methodology, Eckel remains content to narrate, muse, and suggest with muted (though moving) force. His piece builds off of this fundamental observation: “the simple model of interreligious dialogue [involving an understanding, appreciation, and negotiation of religious differences] has given way to a situation of fluidity, multiplicity, indeterminacy, and change….” (151). Through a sprawling narratival tracking of incidents of “religious borrowing,” Eckel presents the notion that religions are evermore folding into each other, and that this somewhat perplexing and even “sloppy” religious landscape most be appropriated if contemporary religious hermeneutics are going to have much merit.
Eckel tells the story of a Zen master who asked Christian monks to “Show me your resurrection.” This statement, though it involves inherently Christian vocabulary, is phrased and used in the manner of a Zen koan, a paradoxical riddle meant to deepen meditative reflection. The question arises whether the riddle is “Buddhist” or “Christian”, and Eckel responds, “Resurrection is there all along, as it were, but the [Zen] master’s words make it known [to the Christian monks] in a new way” (154). This modulated notion of interreligious interaction and conceptual borrowing forms the basis of Eckel’s suggestive hermeneutical turn. The rest of the essay involves examples from Eckel’s own preaching (he is known as a Buddhist-Episcopalian), with insights drawn from Buddhist notions of the totality of the present, “no-apprehension”, and “emptiness” making their way into his discussions of the Christian faith (153-160). The basic idea is one of mutual religious illumination.
The hermeneutic articulated by Eckel is humble and does not aggressively advocate a necessary pluralism, which this writer appreciates. It seems to be an honest and sensitive effort to allow the conceptual material of other faiths to “cross-over” and provide new portrayals of Christian ideals. This is a compelling hermeneutical maneuver, and a clue, I think, to one of the great uses of both interreligious study and comparative theologizing. Eckel does, however, present a rather underwhelming attempt to deal with the notion of “truth” in interreligious borrowing. He dedicates only a single page to this question’s consideration, and his reflections on it prove at best subjective and at worst wandering and undetermined (155-156). A simple statement along the lines of “Interreligious conceptual borrowing is useful in providing sensitive and globally aware frameworks for discussing our home traditions, and it does not necessitate a notion of conflicting truths between the faiths in question,” would have been welcome. As it stands, Eckel’s position on this important aspect of his approach remains unclear.
Joseph S. O’Leary – “Skillful Means as a Hermeneutic Concept”
O’Leary’s thesis is detected as soon as one reads his essay’s title. In short, he feels that the Mahayana Buddhist notion of “skillful means” (i.e. “adroitness in adapting the [Buddhist] message to the capacities and background of [its] hearers” ) can provide a broad conceptual framework in which to couch interreligious understanding and interaction. If each religion works to understand every other religion as another example of “skillful means” which adeptly conveys the truth of the universe in culturally-tailored packages of doctrine and tradition, then less defensive posturing among religions might be possible. In his own words, “Applauding other religions as skillful means we acquire an oblique perspective on our own, appreciating it anew as a skillful means, and criticizing it when it unskillfully erects itself from being a means to being an end” (166-167). Without stopping to directly acknowledge the clear Hickian pluralism of such a statement, O’Leary forages onward, promoting a “de-absolutization of scripture” (against theologies of inerrancy or direct inspiration) (172, see also 168) as well as his opinion that “a voyage among religions is like a voyage among the arts” (172-173). To paraphrase this latter point, as art all attests by various means and mediums to universal notions of beauty and human feeling, so to do all religions, by various paths, “[testify] to a universal revelatory activity at work in all of them” (172).
Interestingly, there are a few passages that sound almost Hegelian sprinkled throughout O’Leary’s prose. He makes multiple comparisons between points in religious development and a kind of universalistic evolution, including the notion of “dramatic thresholds…in the spiritual sphere that can be seen as irreducible transcendent events” (168), referring to it all in his conclusion as the progression of a spiritual “awakening” (again referencing the notion of “breakthroughs” in religious consciousness, 183). Also of note, a quasi-Hegelian nod to a panentheistic, highly immanent paradigm for understanding the divine can also be detected throughout the piece (see 168-169, 182). Thus, any interpreter of religion who places much value on categories of transcendence or religious exclusivity has no part of O’Leary’s discussion; such convictions are apparently obstacles to be melted down by his approach, rather than the active devotional accruements of religious dialogue participants. Furthermore, the universalistic take on revelation and the irreducibility of religious plurality, as portrayed in this essay, seem to make the classic misstep of greatly reducing (if not annihilating) any need for the specific claims of individual faiths. Note this telling quote: “The danger [in my paradigm] is that it whittles down the power of doctrine, causing a loss of faith. The step back from fixational attitudes should not lead to a pulverization of doctrine but to a larger, richer milieu, in which doctrines are allowed to deploy themselves as skillful means expressing this larger vision and life” (179). It is difficult to see how any deeply convicted adherent, particularly of more exclusivistic traditions, would not find the “power of doctrine” dwindled by re-conceiving their orthodoxy as simply a “skillful” way of perceiving a “larger vision and life” (especially one that is under-determined and over-expressed, as the pluralistic ultimacy of O’Leary’s piece tends to be). Overall, if one shares O’Leary’s commitments to such theological themes, then they will be enlivened by his ideas. If not, then not. The piece is not bad, per se, but preaching to one’s own choir does not seem the most progressive tact when genuine dialogue with others is the goal.
John P. Keenan – “The Promise and Peril of Interfaith Hermeneutics”
Keenan’s essay is both poetic and razor-edged, surfeited with memorable phrases and critical insights about interreligious learning and the challenging rewards it can offer. Commenting on the modernist (and postmodernist) push of many Christian scholars to eschew any shadow of fundamentalism, Keenan wryly notes that this has resulted in “a more and more inclusive church of fewer and fewer people” (190). He recognizes—on a level seemingly neglected by some other contributors to this volume—the real and deep power of religious convictions and the disquieting effects of sheepishly muting them for the sake of pluralistic palatability. Following this discussion, he turns his attention to another interreligious fad: focusing solely on mystical impulses in different traditions in an attempt to find some basal congruence between them which effectively hurdles the explicit, contradictory theological doctrines. Recognizing the similarity of mystical ineffability but denying its utility in interreligious dialogue, he claims that “precisely because [mystical experiences are] unknown and ineffable [they] can never serve as the ground for interfaith discussion—[their] very silence cuts off discussion. It is a place of no place” (191).
These critical points dexterously made, Keenan posits a modest hope for interreligious hermeneutics: that they strengthen our religious awareness of those “values, theologies, and mystical experiences that are a part of [our] own faith practices” (193). He goes so far as to claim that this “critical self-understanding has been the richest reward” of his interreligious work (no small claim from any interreligionist). The value of studying, observing, and wandering ever deeper into the thriving cores of other world faiths is, at least in part, that they cast in sharp relief those beliefs and practices which the scholar holds dear, helping her to understand them in a far more nuanced and critical fashion than would ever have been possible if she had studied her own tradition in isolation. Keenan’s essay is excellent and perceives the necessary humility that must attend any foray into this often-vexing field; if there is any critique to be made it is that more time could have been spent elucidating the self-critical benefits for one’s understanding of one’s own doctrines, a topic which Keenan only briefly touches on (196-197).
Hendrik Vroom – “Hermeneutics and Dialogue Applied in the Establishment of a Western Department of Islamic Theology”
As one might infer from the title, Vroom’s essay is a highly unique contribution. It focuses a good deal on the interesting hermeneutical and interfaith issues that are raised in the establishment of an Islam-focused theology department at the VU University Amsterdam (203). Though relatively engaging, Vroom’s piece is descriptive in scope, and thus resists an in-depth “critical” review. However, I enjoye the piece and discovered several interesting insights woven throughout it, some of the more prominent of which I will highlight here. Aside from some interesting general observations about Gadamer and the dialogical process (207-211), Vroom discusses how governmentally-directed educational proclivities can dampen the creation of effective spaces for interreligious dialogue, for “laws determine the space for creative initiatives” (214). The concept of “ownership”, especially as it related to the “Western” education of Muslim imams is also a highly relevant discussion which the essay engages (see 216-218). Running around and underneath his fascinating discussion of these elements is Vroom’s anti-theology-of-religions perspective (which are quite in vogue these days, especially among interreligionists and comparative theologians). He discusses it as a position which pushes against any “holistic theory of religion” and refuses to see different faiths as “opposed” to one another. Rather, he says, religions should simply be viewed as dynamic, multi-faceted (221) and incongruent (226). This incongruence means that there will be disagreement, but that the dynamism of the world faith situation (academic and not) requires trust: “In dialogue and joint activity, the sharing of some insights might be a basis for reciprocal trust – which is a precondition for dialogue as such and a must for common action” (226).
Laurie L. Patton – “The Doorkeeper, the Choirboy, and the Singer of the Psalms: Notes on Narratives of Pragmatic Pluralism in the Twenty-First Century”
Her first sentence charts her course: Patton hopes to explore some interesting frontiers through a “narrative ethics of interfaith engagement” (228). By way of clarification, this reviewer would like to highlight that “narrative ethics”, as such, can take two distinct forms based on context. Within a high-scripture tradition, narrative ethics are an inferential procedure whereby ethical norms, standards, and procedures are drawn from canonized narratival events; they are authoritative and often lent deep currents of interpretative force. Outside of a high-scripture tradition, narrative ethics are the stuff of pragmatic encounter and everyday life; they focus on “what sort of ethic might be drawn from these daily occurring narratives in our midst?” These narrative ethics are flexible and non-dogmatic by nature, and it is this latter kind of ethics that Patton has in mind. The bulk of her contribution to the volume focuses on her native teaching context in Atlanta, Georgia (Emory and its environs), where she has been evermore exposed to various true-life accounts of encounters between people of varying cultural and religious backgrounds (232-234, 243-246). Supplementing these stories are some accounts of her own time studying abroad (234-242). All of the stories (some of which are highly engaging) illustrate some form of interfaith relations that are worked out in everyday life. Patton notes that various religious adherents, especially ones placed side-by-side by unavoidable circumstance or dire straits, often find ways of ameliorating their differences, whether through civic engagement (237-240), knowledge of peaceful trajectories in their own traditions (240-241), or even through pragmatic interdependence (she gives the example of working together for electrical power, 241-242). These stories offer an excellent example, Patton claims, of Jonathon Sacks’ notion of “pragmatic pluralism,” where the fact of pluralism renders some rather pragmatic solutions to interfaith living and understanding (242).
Up to this point, the essay is thorough and relatively clear. It embraces an open-ended, revisable, and, yes, pragmatic approach to interreligious difference. Certainly it suffers from lack of wide applicability, since all the solutions offered are context-based and highly specific, but it is an essay full of hope for what committed believers can accomplish without the sometimes muddying influence of the academy. It is only when, in the last section, Patton tries to draw out some actual “ethical” conclusions from these narratives that things get a bit rocky. Aside from acknowledging the power of the “storytelling moment” (247) and the power of cooperative action (248), there are not many ethical norms to be drawn here. In fact, the highly contextual nature of the narratives seems to rebel against the notion of drawing a real “ethic” from them at all, in the sense of an ethic that is universally recognizable and demonstrably useful across differing environments. Patton’s essay is a good read, but I am not sure if it ends up offering much more than its admittedly engaging “hospitable narratives” (242).
- Samuel J. Youngs, Bryan College