Monday, November 29, 2010

Do not disturb

In Religion in Dialogue tomorrow, we're discussing Leonard Swidler's "Dialogue Decalogue," a much-used platform for interreligious dialogue. The fruit of much experience, it is an interesting mix of idealism and realism. I'm curious to see what my students make of its demands for dialogue participants' complete honesty and sincerity (3rd commandment) and mutual trust (#8), an attitude at least minimally self-critical of both themselves and their own religious or ideological traditions (#9), and commitments to strive to agree with the dialogue partner as far as is possible while still maintaining integrity with his own tradition (#6) and to experience the partner's religion or ideology "from within" (#10).

I'm puzzled by curious turns of phrase in the preamble and epilogue. Swidler defines dialogue as a conversation on a common subject between two or more persons with differing views, the primary purpose of which is for each participant to learn from the other so that s/he can change and grow. The dialoguer's attitude, Swidler adds, automatically includes the assumption that at any point we might find the partner's position so persuasive that, if we would act with integrity, we would have to change, and change can be disturbing. So, change or don't change? Are we not committing ourselves to be changed, risking being disturbed in our pieties? Isn't it all about "acting with integrity"?

The disturbance in the surface of this otherwise delightful-sounding project comes from the fact that traditions' "integrity" must always be respected. It's not just that an interreligious dialoguer must be in constant touch with her/his tradition (#2), but that, when all is said and done, s/he must stay what she started as: the Jew will be authentically Jewish and the Christian will be authentically Christian, not despite the fact that Judaism and/or Christianity have been profoundly "Buddhized" [by dialogue], but because of it. And the same is true of a Judaized and/or Christianized Buddhism. There can be no talk of a syncretism here, for syncretism means amalgamating various elements of different religions into some kind of a (con)fused whole without concern for the integrity of the religions involved - which is not the case with authentic dialogue (end of the epilogue).

So can we, in fact, be changed by dialogue or not? Should we?

You'll recognize one of my pet peeves here, the interreligious pluralist's dismissal of a caricatured "syncretism." Is fused inevitably (con)fused? (Diana Eck has the same blind spot.) If we must enter dialogue open to the possibility of being changed, even in disturbing ways, how could we commit at the outset to avoid "syncretism," even if it's defined as violating the sacred "integrity" of religious traditions? If the primary purpose of dialogue ... is to change and grow in the perception and understanding of reality, and then to act accordingly (#1), how could we exclude from the get-go the possibility - even the likelihood - that we might be impelled to move beyond the boundaries of inherited traditions to new understandings? (This is what Paul Knitter does, who's honest enough to raise the question whether 40 years of dialogue has left him a Buddhist - not "Buddhized" - Christian or a Christian Buddhist... But of course surveys confirm more and more of us bridge traditions every day, something you might have noticed I can't make up my mind whether to celebrate or scorn.)

I suppose the integrity of dialogue requires that dialogue continue, and in this way dialogue has a structural commitment to the survival of the difference of the dialogue partners.


Frank said...

Happy to read this after leading a discussion of Eck's position yesterday. Perhaps there is also some tension between pluralism as a theoretical model and pluralism as an embodied/embedded position. The former would want to avoid syncretism so as to not become a form of inclusivism. But what's to keep the latter from becoming syncretistic? This tension is messy because there can be no strict separation of the two in Eck's version of pluralism (e.g., she is a Christian pluralist). I guess the tension is found in the relation between what we must hold in common to have a dialogue, and what we must retain to maintain our identities?

mark said...

"what we must retain to maintain our identities" - are we assuming that identities are or should be single and more or less fixed?

Frank said...

That's certainly not my view, but it seems to be at work in Eck's model. So I suppose I'm assuming it in my reading of her position. Productive dialogue seems to lie somewhere between silence and conversion. It is a careful negotiation between stasis and conversion. The exclusivist favors stasis for both parties by refusing to engage (they take listening/reading seriously, and so avoid it). The inclusivist maintains stasis on her side by "converting" what is proper to the "other" (they are bad listeners/readers). The pluralist manages some sort of mutual give-and-take. She is an artful reader. But the focus is still on equilibrium. Finally, the convert obliterates her original position (she gets carried away in her reading/listening -- a victim to persuasion). But perhaps I've oversimplified things.

Still, I think that your question gets to the heart of the matter: the descriptive, theoretical (hermeneutical?) position that denies fixed and/or singular identities has definite theological implications. Even more so if made normative. If something like this position is the condition for dialogue, it seems that many would have to agree with Rorty that religion is a conversation stopper.