Thursday, April 9, 2009

giving each other a look

I recall a moment last September, during that first Spirituali-Tea I attended at Whitman College, when two students gave each other a look while I was talking about the assumption some people make that all religions are basically reaching toward the same absolute reality or the same type of salvation. I had cast doubt on this notion, and the students who had given each other that look explained that they assumed that most people saw religions that way, i.e., as sharing a common essence or goal. Alas (or maybe hooray!), it's untrue that most people possess this conviction: while religious liberalism isn't necessarily a fringe movement, it's certainly not a reflection of where most people in any given religious tradition stand. Religious liberals are decidedly in the minority.

The problem for the religious liberal is here analogous to the problem for the political liberal, I think. The religious liberal wants to assign equal value and legitimacy to different traditions out of a sense of charity, but risks disrespecting those religions by relegating potentially fundamental differences to the realm of "mere detail." Good intentions can thus go awry when such a liberal, without actually having studied other religious traditions, makes a claim like "all religions are talking about God, each in its own way." It's not really a dialogue when you already think you have the answer.

This isn't to say, however, that you should approach dialogue with no convictions whatsoever. To the contrary, it's a good idea to have beliefs, and to be comfortable with the specificity of those beliefs-- to be able to say "No, I think you're wrong" when your interlocutor says something that runs contrary to your worldview. If the dialogue is a healthy one, the interlocutor will maturely accept this opinion without losing his temper.* Disagreement can be fruitful-- fodder for some great discussions-- and agreement is not necessarily the goal of dialogue. It's not even clear that dialogue should have a goal (cf. Raimondo Panikkar's notion of dialogical dialogue).

We should also note that the liberal impulse to make ostensibly conciliatory, pluralistic claims should not be viewed as completely wrong-headed. There is indeed a risk that, in making broad claims about a tradition not one's own, one will offend the Other. But there's also a chance that one's views of the Other's tradition, however well- or ill-informed, might afford the Other a look at his own tradition through another perspective. Reinterpretation by the Other is also part of dialogue, after all.

Anyway, I recall being amused by the students' reaction to the idea that not everyone was as "accepting" as they were. I wonder if they saw that moment as I did. For me, it looked as though they were beginning to realize that the world is a bigger, more varied place than the boundaries of their conceptual bubble had allowed for. That's a good thing, and to me, that's what college-- and life beyond college-- should be all about.

*Mature acceptance doesn't mean the discussion is over. This isn't about agreeing to disagree (see my above-linked post, plus this and this). Here, I'm talking about the acceptance of the fact that people will believe differently, possibly for reasons as legitimate as one's own.


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