Religious Exclusivism and Interreligious Dialogue: Incompatible or Not?

Religious Exclusivism and Interreligious Dialogue: Incompatible or Not?


[music playing] My name is Katherine
Corneal and in name of the Department of Theology,
the School of Theology and Ministry and the
Church in the 21st Century, I want to welcome you all
to this year’s installment of the Brian O’Brien
and Mary Heston and Lectures in
Interreligious Dialogue. These are lectures that have
been going on for the past five years where every year
we invite a major scholar in the area of interreligious
dialogue to speak to us. And we are particularly
honored this year to have Professor
Miroslav Volf with us. And in a moment,
you will understand why it’s a particular
honor this year to have Miroslav Volf with us. Miroslav Volf is the
Henry B Wright Professor of Systematic Theology and
Founding Director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture. A native of Croatia,
Professor Volf received a BA from the
Evangelical Theological Faculty of Osijek, and an MA degree from
Fuller Theological Seminary, and a Doctorate and a
Post Doctorate degree from the University of
Tubingen in Germany. He has authored or coauthored
more than 20 books and over 90 scholarly articles
focusing on topics of reconciliation,
public theology, and Muslim-Christian dialogue. His work focuses on pressing
social, cultural, and political and religious issues, and he
attends to all of these issues from a deeply Christian
theological tradition and faith. I will mention only a
few of his books that are relevant for the topic of
interreligious dialogue, which is the focus this evening. Exclusion and Embrace, A
Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness and
Reconciliation in 1998. A Common Word,
Muslims and Christians on Loving God and
Neighbor in 2010. Do We Worship the Same God? Jews, Christians and
Muslims in Dialogue in 2012. And then finally,
his latest book called Flourishing, Why We Need
Religion in a Globalized World. This is his latest
book that was just published last year in
2016 in which he argues for the importance of
religious tradition and religious engagement
in a pluralized world. And in particular, he argues
that religious exclusivism can exist perfectly in harmony
with political pluralism. But the topic of
his lecture tonight will be on Religious Exclusivism
and Interreligious Dialogue, Incompatible or Not? And the reason why we
are so happy and honored to have him with
us this evening is that Professor Volf was one
of the lead initiative takers to respond to a document that
was published in 2007 by 138 Muslim theologians who
published a document called A Common Word,
Between Us and You. And this was a document that
attempted, on the Muslim side, to reach out to Christians
to focus on elements of faith that we have in common, notably
faith in God and love of God and love of neighbor. And Professor Volf organized the
first really Christian response to this document and published
a full page commentary on the document in the
New York Times in 2007. So this year is the
10th anniversary of A Common Word,
which at the time seemed like it was a new
chapter or a new beginning in the dialogue between
Muslims and Christians, and we’re very happy and
grateful to have Professor Volf with us, and he has been
very engaged in continuing dialogue between religions
and we look very much forward to his lecture. So please join me in
welcoming him to the podium. [applause] Thank you so much for
these words of welcome. It’s a great honor
to be here with you. I have prepared a
lecture and what I would ask you to
do as I’m lecturing is to get used to having
to squint a little bit. You know how when you
want to kind of get in the contours of something,
if you will look at it straight you don’t quite get
the contours of them. So if you squint
from a distance you can see a contour of things. So my lecture is going to be
more a kind of from the 30,000 feet perspective,
looking at the contours rather than delving deep down
into the very fine texture of various aspects
of the argument that I possibly could make. So there’s a kind
of a risk entailed in this kind of approach. On the other hand,
I think we need today kind of broad visions,
even if they don’t quite, or people have sense
that they don’t quite fit so that we can
actually see how this religious engagement can
live in the contemporary world and take roots. So one of the things
that I will talk about is, I will talk about more
generally about something like world religions. And immediately, as soon
as I say that, obviously the word religion is can be
very much problematized in religions. And especially something
like world religion can be problematized. Indeed, some folks have
said that what we generally describe as world religions,
the great religions, are better described as
secondary religions that follow on the primary ones, or
that we can describe them as majority religion. Again, it’s a very
contested terrain. I’m kind of wading into it. And I think it’s partly
contested because more generally we have
difficulty saying we, first person
plural, without kind of crossing our fingers when
we say that, because any time we say we, somebody is
excluded from that we. And as soon as we start
looking more carefully down, suddenly picture is
much more complicated. I think some of us have
difficulty saying I because once we start
looking very carefully, the I itself also starts to
kind of swim and we cannot kind of take it in as such
as a stable self. So bear this in
mind that I’m going to operate with some of these
contested words in rather rather unproblematic way. We can then problematize them
later if we if that’s what we need. And I hope we have a good enough
time for discussion as well. Now, I’m going to approach
the question of exclusivism and pluralism,
religious exclusivism, and political pluralism
not addressing it simply head on here, but
coming from the side. If you want to see
it addressed head on, I have an entire chapter devoted
to that in my book Flourishing. And the way this
question arose for me as I was writing
the book was simply that I was teaching
a course at Yale on religion and globalization
or faith and globalization, and it was taught to students of
from the entire university. Almost invariably,
first question was about religious exclusivism
and the possibilities of religious exclusivists
existing together in a globalized world. Exclusivism and something
like political pluralism was a central kind of a central question
that needed to be addressed from the get go. And then I thought,
well, we’ve got to face that question head on. I’ll just say, so by the
way of introduction, only that much and then
I’ll go into my own text. Some of my co-teachers
they insist that you had to be
religious pluralist in order to be embrace political pluralism
as a political project. And as I thought
about it, that just seemed to me completely
an implausible position. And unworkable on top of it. If we waited for all the
religious exclusivism, majority of world religion
people who are religious are some version of
religious exclusivists. If we had to persuade them to
become religious pluralists in order to become
political pluralists we would have to wait for
a very, very long time. Not only did I see
that it was not necessarily coherent,
not historically plausible, but also practically
not really workable. So I’ve tried to then make
an argument that actually you can be a religious exclusivist,
and just on account of being religious
exclusivist, embrace pluralism as a political project. And as a matter of fact,
not too far from here there are folks who did
just that and initiated the whole tradition of
political liberalism way of treating religion,
somebody like Roger Williams. But all of this, we can
take up in the discussion. I’ll approach this slightly
from different angle. And I want to emphasize what
I would describe as something like a great agreement that
exists among world religions, and that we better focus on zero
in especially as it concerns a very contested
and very important question of our
contemporary life, and the question that is kind
of falling by the wayside. And that is a particular
way of reading what it means to
be a human and what it means to cultivate humanity. So I’ll first zero in on the
great agreement, and then after that I’ll take a look
at what I describe as Cont religions, and there are also
secular ideologies, of course– Contending Particular
Universalisms. And I’m going to call them CPUs. Contending Particular
Universalism. And I’m going to
trying to give you example of what we do in the
classroom about the issue and how interreligious dialogue,
interworldview dialogue is being brought to bear
in order to shape the very account of what
it means to cultivate the humanity in our self. So roughly, that’s thats my my lecture. You’ll see the
exclusivist side of things will be in the contending
and in the universalism that is going to be
slightly relativized by the particularism
that’s going to be also an element of this. But first, what is this great
agreement among religions? And I can put it maybe maybe
best to put it concretely in terms of the tradition
from which I come, Christian tradition,
which took it straight over from the Jewish tradition. And I think that
the great agreement is that human beings do
not live by bread alone. And I think to
emphasize that agreement is one of the very important
functions of all great faiths. I want to put it this
way, and I built here on some of the work in
the Flourishing book. The mother of all
temptations, equally hard to resist in
abundance and in want, is to believe and to act
as if human beings lived by bread alone. As if our entire lives
should revolve around creation, improvement,
distribution, and securitization
of worldly goods. Succumb to that
temptation, and the best you can do in terms of
enjoyment, I think– this is a contested claim. Many have contested the
claims that I will make– you will have something
like a pleasure or fun, but true joy and true depth
of life will escape you. Turn these stones into
bread, the tempter taunted Jesus, famished after
40 day fast in the wilderness. And Jesus resisted
him responding, “One does not live
by bread alone, but by every word that comes
from the mouth of the Lord.” Now, Jesus was quoting
the Hebrew Bible. Moses, the great
deliver and law giver, first uttered these words
to the children of Israel as a summary of the
main lesson they were to have learned in
the course of their 40 year long wandering before
entering the promised land. Bread was what they
needed in the wilderness. That much was never in doubt. And that relatively trite truth,
as insistent as a growling stomach, they did
not need to learn. Nobody needs to, in
a sense, learn it. But they needed that they needed more
than bread alone, that truth, not as obvious as
hunger, but as real as the possibility of
losing our very humanity. That truth, that we don’t
live by bread alone, as real as the possibility
of losing our very humanity, they did need to learn. All humans do. Perhaps above all, we
moderns need to learn it. Now, in the course
of modernity, we have made our
greatest temptation into the chief goal of our
lives and the main purpose of our major institutions. The state, the market obviously,
science and technology, and education. German philosopher
Sloterdijk has said once that modernity
is an age in which people believe that only
world can be the case. I think more
significantly, modernity is also an age in which people
act as if only world were the case, whether they believe
in transcendent realities or not. Most of our social
and individual energy and imagination revolves
today around turning bread turning stones into bread. And yet we, the rich,
both the rich and the poor are still in the wilderness,
plagued by hunger, plagued by thirst. For when we
live by bread alone, there is never enough bread. Not enough even when we make
so much of it that some of it rots away. When we live by bread alone,
someone always goes hungry. When we live by bread
alone, every bite we take leaves a bitter
aftertaste, and the more we eat the more bitter the taste. When we live by bread
alone, we always want more and better
bread, as if the bitterness came from the bread itself and
not in fact from our living by bread alone. Living by mundane
realities and for them alone, we remain
insatiably restless, and that restlessness in turn
contributes to competitiveness as inversely competitiveness
feeds that restlessness, but restlessness contributes
to competitiveness, to social injustice, and
destruction of the environment. It also constitutes
a major obstacle to more just, generous and
caring personal practices and social arrangements. But why, you might
say, won’t bread alone? Why want why will not the unending stream
of amazing things and services we create with such
incredible ingenuity– and I want you to hear what this
last statement as what it is. I think that’s exactly
what we are doing, right? It’s absolutely stunning
what we are making, right? Starting with this
little iPhone that I have and through all sorts of
other amazing both things and services which we create. But why won’t these
things steal our hunger and keep us delighting? And why won’t bread
alone steal our hunger even if he created it–
this is a question mark. I should maybe make
a claim first– why won’t bread alone
steal our hunger even if we created it
righteously and distributed it equitably so that no
one goes underpaid, and that basic needs
of all are met. Which I think ought to happen. After all, we are
material creatures living in a material world. Our senses ready for
enjoyment of material things. [pause] For life to flourish,
I believe, we need to do much to improve
the state of the world. Famously, as you know,
World Economic Forum has its own motto, Improving
the State of the World, right? So I might disagree with how
the improvement of the world is conceived by a majority of
the folks in World Economic Forum, but I’d
certainly agree that we need to do much to improve
the state of the world. But I submit to you that
it is possible to benefit for a myriad of world’s
genuine improvements and still not flourish. And still not be happy. Two reasons, two reasons One are kind of inescapable
shadows of these improvements. And you can trace kind of the
development of technology and the kind of shadow
side that they have. You can think about it in
terms of risk societies in which we live that
in a way we can never attend to the potential
risks of any improvement and any development
that we undertake. But also, quite apart
from those shadow side you can see it in ecological
destruction and other areas of life. But apart from those
kind of shadow sides of this, in the way in
which we relate to the world is often problematic. So we accomplish an
extraordinary feat of self subversion daily. We receive gifts without
being enriched by those gifts. We give without
ourselves being ennobled by this most human of our acts. And our pleasures, they are
fleeting, they are fickle, and they’re often
self-canceling. We often feel short changed if
we don’t flatten into mere fun what could have been
deep and genuine joys. And we do so even
when we know that fun, a thin pleasure laid
on as a coating– that’s a quote from Seneca– fun as a thin pleasure
laid out as a coating– which is absolutely
perfect, I think– that kind of fun
lasts for a moment, and lasts as long as it
lasts and leaves us empty. Whereas joy, deeper
joy, associated with the goodness of
the life well lived, irradiates our past and
future with meaning. So to improve the
world we need both. Or to flourish we need both. To improve the world and
to learn to experience the world in a new way. And you might then ask,
why do we need that? And I think the response
to that is that we are– this is now a
theological response– but I think this is
the great agreement. This is also a
fundamental conviction of the great traditions,
great religious traditions, that we are in one way
or another creatures of two worlds,
transcendent and mundane. And it’s only in
this unity that we can live truly human and
truly enjoyable lives. That’s the I think, believe
the great agreement. And I think that’s
the great agreement of the great world of
religious traditions that stands in contrast. Maybe not so much in terms
of what philosophically we think about the world, but how
caught in the daily living that is shaped in profound
ways by market economy, a particular
form of market economy, we have come to actually
live in the world as if only the
world were the case. As if we weren’t
creatures of the world. As if the reality wasn’t
the entirety of reality wasn’t to be seen as
kind of two worlds– reality in a very
specified sense. I’m building here on
Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche was famous for– he coined the phrase two worlds two
worlds accounts of reality, and obviously he
himself contested this account of reality. Now, there’s a big
debate of how do you relate transcendent
and mundane realities, and religions disagree on that. Within religions there
are profound disagreements about that. Those disagreements
are worth pursuing, but I think we need
to step back and take in what I think to
be uncontested claim that for these traditions,
we need to rediscover transcendence anew to be able to
live in a responsible and also enjoyable way in
the world itself. So that much on this
great agreement. [pause] Now comes That’s almost like a
substantive agreement with much differences–
with quite a few differences obviously in how
this is orchestrated. But there are also
important formal agreements between great religions,
and those can be also kind of formal agreements but
as such sources of disagreement and clashes. And here I come
then to my proposal. I’ll deviate from the text
because otherwise it’s going to end up
being too abstract. I’m going to look you in
the eyes more when I speak. Here I come to my account of
these contending particular universalisms. I think we live today
in the globalized world in the situation
culturally of contending particular universalisms. Great world religions
are such universalisms I would want to propose. So are also other operative
philosophies or even ways that unthematized ways
in which we organize our lives. Utilitarianism, for
instance, is such. Kantianism, for
instance, is such. And in their varieties
they profoundly shape in which we orient
ourselves in the world. And so you we we deal in
these universalisms that are contending. Let me take each one of
them on their own after the other. And then I will take
up also or give you an example what we do with
this contending particular universalisms in the
classroom itself. So as to bring it a little
bit closer to experience of most of us, whether
we are here teachers or whether we are students. So first, let me
take universalisms. I think great
religious faiths are universalism in the sense that
they make truth claims about– again, contested stuff. Some of your eyes are going
to go up when I say that. I think the great
religious traditions, they make truth claims about the
true life of any human beings or of human beings
qua human beings. They are not about how
people in particular period and particular cultural
sphere ought to live. They are not about how we
might imagine ourselves as living, or to use a very
popular and somewhat crass example, they’re not like
different flavors of ice cream in a ice cream shop
and then you go and then you take one or the other
and occasionally you want to combine, right, and have
some sprinkling or something fourth maybe on the thing. I’m sure that people that we
do this with religions as well, but the great great religions I
think were about something that it’s not created, so to
speak, by us but something that we embrace as
a truth of our lives and truth of lives of
other people as well. At least that makes a
claim to be such a truth. Think in terms of
Christian faith. Think in terms of Jesus. Speaks about the Kingdom of God
and says that there is a person and he sees the
treasure and then sells absolutely everything he or
she has and buys this treasure. I think something of that
characterizes all great faiths in my judgment. Again, you’ll give me hundreds
of examples to the contrary. But I think at the very they’ve
got that element as a fundamental to who
they are historically they have been those
great traditions. So they are universal. They make truths claims. But they’re also I said
Contending Particular Universalisms. They are particular. So when we say they
make truths claims, but they all make truth claims
from a very particular place and particular time. And you can see how
those truth claims, over the period of
history, how they’re also developed as they encounter
different kind of settings, they are all particular. And they share then, truth
claims of religion share in the characteristic
way in which we human beings can
make truth claims. We cannot make them in some kind
of absolute sense because we ourselves are not absolute. We always have to
make them rooted in the particularities in
which we find ourselves, as expressed in a kind
of classical sense, not viewing the
world from nowhere, but viewing the world from
a particular standpoint. Consequence of that is
that no individual religion can be seen as absolute. That if it’s self-aware, it
cannot see itself as absolute. Now Christians are
very famous, especially in certain periods
of time, to have thought that Christian faith
is the absolute religion. How would you
possibly know that? How could you possibly
know that, right? There is a, even if it were, you wouldn’t
be able to articulate that because we are relative
and we can formulate truths only from the relative standpoint. I said there’s a
third word to it to describe the great religious
traditions and secular ideologies. They’re contending. They’re particular,
they make truth claims, and they contend
with one another. That’s not the only
thing that they do. And religious contend in
variety sorts of ways. We have mentioned the
common word, right? Common word was kind of grew
out of a very contentious contention. It was out of statement that
then Pope Benedict the 16th has made about Islam. A negative statement. And then the response, actually
a kind of open response, inviting response on
the part of the Muslims. In particular, my
very good friend Prince Ghazi which
initiated whole process of the common word. But I can tell you that
in the course of working on the common word, even though
we were working on something that was common, and even if
it was even if it was the friendly embrace both of friendly hand extended to us
and certainly on my part and on our part it has been a
friendly embrace of that hand. But as we were
shaking our hand we were contending
at the same time. There was quite a
bit of contention about say question of
evangelism, which there was quite a bit of
contention about the Doctrine of the Trinity. And you can go down the line. There was quite a
bit of contention whether it’s possible
to say that God is love or that God loves. And you might say, those are
simply semantic differences. You should have seen
how long we struggled on that very question. So even in the very friendly
settings, contention is there. Put differently, I don’t think
contention here is a bad word. I think it’s a question
of how the contending is going on rather than whether
we should be contending or not. And the reason why I think it’s
not a bad word, and the reason why I think we ought to not
think of religions simply as varieties of
flavors of ice cream– so as we are indifferent
which one we or somebody else chooses– the reason is, I
think that they are about the truth of our lives. They’re not simply about
this or that aspect that I might improve
here and there, and I might try and figure
out whether it’s going to go. But it’s something
on which I, on which we rest our entire lives. Something that
actually kind of shifts the directionality
of our entire being. I think they answer the
question, the kind of question to that Nietzsche has
pursued his entire life. Now, obviously I’m
invoking Nietzsche who was not particularly
good friend of religions, but he was pursuing the
same, I think the same or in terms of
category, the same kind of question as religions were. One of his last
pieces that he wrote was his little book
on the antichrist. And obviously, it was kind
of a devastating critique of Christianity and Judaism
in the process and Buddhism, as well, though he was
friendlier to Buddhism. I think than he was
to Christianity. But the point I wish to make,
so the beginning of that antichrist, he talks about what
his main question is. What kind of human being
ought we cultivate? Now, he used a different word. He used, what kind of human
being should we breed. It’s a little bit crass. You can put it in
terms of cultivation. What kind of human beings
ought we aspire to be? And I think that fundamental
question is worth contention. Let me say a few
comments about some of the developments in the
kind of university education, then switch from there to
the experiment or the course that we are teaching where
we try to embody just some of the things that I have
described to you in this more abstract way. I think one of the– traditionally, at certainly
American, but also generally Western universities,
a question of what kind of life is worthy to be lived. What is the meaning of life? What is the purpose
of our existence? Was one of the
essential questions around which the
entire university curriculum pivoted or circled. Obviously, at universities
many other things were being pursued. Many forms of knowledge. But at the heart of it
was also an exploration of meaningful life. I built here on the work of my
colleague from the law school, not always agreeing with him,
but it’s a very good diagnosis I think in the book
Education’s End, on why American colleges universities
and colleges have given up on the meaning of life. And he gives an account
of why this question has been pushed aside. Whereas it was classically both
in great Western philosophies and also in great world
religion at the very heart of the pursuit itself. Now, if it’s true that
it is marginalized, then we don’t nurture
sufficiently culturally broadly culturally reflection on the ends on
the purposes of our lives. And sometimes I put it this way. We have become, or
our universities have allowed us to be,
or our universities, to put a little bit
stronger, are shaping us to be expert in means. But armatures in ends. We are left to our own
devices to figure out what is it that we desire. What it is that we
ought to strive for. And generally then we
operate on the default mode. We desire what we desire. We don’t reflect
too much about it. When we reflect about it, how
we step back and ask what do I want, and then we
identify our wants. When we are really a
little bit more reflective, then we said, wait a second,
what do I really want? And that takes certain form of
self-reflection to realize now behind the surface wants there
may be some more deeper wants that I need to satisfy. But even when we ask
that question, what do I really want, I haven’t
asked the important question of my life. I haven’t asked the question,
what is actually worth wanting. The fact that I
really want something doesn’t mean that
it is desirable. It means that I desire it. And desirability of our
wants, that’s what’s at issue. But the only way to figure out
what is really worth wanting is to pursue the question,
what kind of human being is worth cultivating. Who am I supposed to be? And that question is I
think a contested one. Sometimes not addressed. And when it’s addressed,
then it’s contested. Contested among religions. It is also I think
pushed at us, almost foisted upon us, by
developments in something like gene editing and
artificial intelligence. Suddenly, we need
to ask ourselves who it is that we
are as human beings. And I think in that
conversation about who we are as human
beings, great religions can be fantastic and
important interlocutors. In fact, that’s how
we teach this course that I mentioned to you. Thats how we, we don’t so much
teach world religions as engage in dialogue with them. We have a course at Yale which
is called Life Worth Living. Four years ago I and a
doctoral student of mine have started the course. And basically, we
asked the question– our main question is,
what in these religions– religious and we have
also secular traditions– what do they say about what
kind of life is worth living? And so that as to not make this
course as kind of introduction into religions and
world philosophies for dummies of the
dummies, right, so that you spend about three
days on each world religion and know nothing about
it, right, after that? We have seven questions that we
ask as we read original texts. And we read original texts
in all religious traditions– in those religious
traditions we address, and in philosophies like we
would read John Stuart Mill, we’ll read some of Karl Marx,
we’ll read some of Nietzsche. But all guided by the
following questions. Three of them have to do
with what is the shape of– what is the vision
of being human? And how do we get at it? We get at it by asking
the following questions. What does it mean,
according to this tradition, for life to be led well? That’s about my agency, right? What does the tradition say? How should you act in the world? And a lot of
traditions have a lot to say about how you should act. And so we try to
figure out, OK, what’s the gist of how you should act? Second question is, what
according to this tradition does it mean for
life to go well? That’s about
circumstances of life. That’s about my body. That’s about the set of
friends that I might have. About communities,
about the cities, about political arrangements,
about ecological arrangements. That’s about
circumstances in which the plant that our life
is can properly grow. One is about agency, the other
one is about circumstances, and the third one is about
our affective states. What according to this tradition
does it mean to feel rightly? And many traditions
have different things to say about what
kind of feeling ought to qualify our lives. So you put these three together,
affective, circumstantial, and agential dimensions
of life, and we ask, according to each of
these traditions, what do they say about it? Some traditions say very much
about agency but very little about circumstances. Stoics are a very
good example of that. Or some traditions say a
lot about circumstances but very little about personal
responsibility and agency. Marx might be a good example. And so forth, right? And we kind of
debate this issue. Then we ask the question, what
motivations do they give you, this tradition give
you to live life, to have this vision
of a flourishing life? What reasons do they give? And obviously,
often a lot of time they have a good
deal of reasons. They interpret the world
in a particular way so you can study what
motivations and reasons might you have. And then may say, well, you
may like this vision of life that was sketched. You may also think that
the reasons are good. But your question, my
question, how do I live that? I can agree with something. I can desire something. But not able actually
to implement it. So many traditions have
a kind of ways, practices that they cultivate so
as to help you move you along the way to where that
idea or ideal of being human. And then we ask the question,
what happens when you fail? Anything? Do you just get up
and dust yourself off? What happens when you kind
of not just fail in one or the other thing that
you do, but kind of fail in the basic
directionality toward which you want to live in order to
live the fully humane life. And finally, we
ask the question, to whom are you responsible? To yourself? To your tradition? To your Country to God? Who is the one who
calls upon you to do, to live in this kind of way? And then we have
a what we describe as truth seeking conversation. I tell the students, assume
that these traditions, for the purposes of this
class, assume that they are making truth claims. And that means they’re
talking about your life. They’re not talking
about somebody’s life in 2,000 years ago
or 3,000 years ago. They’re talking about you. And they’re talking about your
friend sitting next to you. They’re talking about all of us. And they’re asking
something of us. And at some point, we
shift the conversation and say, OK, so if this
tradition were true, how would your life have to change? Most fascinating stuff happens. Last time that I
taught the course– I’ll come to an end
fairly quickly– last time when I
taught this course, I think we started
with Buddhism and we were reading some original text
about Buddha’s enlightenment. And then one of the students
said, you know what, if I were to take
this really seriously, would I have been
able to get into Yale? Had I taken this
seriously, would I have been able to get into Yale? Would we be able
to actually work study here and study responsibly? There are many possible
answers to this question. But the fact of
asking it I think is incredibly significant. And similar kinds of
questions occur all the time. I personally think this is
some of the most fruitful interreligious dialogue that
I’ve ever had is with 15-16 students of mine, and
I sit around table, and not some of them are– they come from
different traditions. A few Christians, a few Jews,
a few Muslims, and Buddhists and then a contingent
of a variety of stripes of secularists, and we
go at these questions assuming that each of these
is making claim on our lives. Fantastic. It works works like a charm. And obviously, you
will now say, if I step outside of a small
curated setting of a classroom where I primarily function
as a referee, right? I function as a
referee in a sense that I try to make sure it is
about truth of your existence and your friend’s
existence, and you’ve got to respect each
person in this classroom. So the rest, I’ll let
flow relatively freely. But you step out and you
ask yourself, is that also, could that be possibly
a way to think about interreligious
dialogue more broadly? And I think, in
fact, it might be. One would have to think
about how one structures the political space for
instance, in order to make possible such a dialogue. Obviously, all
religions would have to be politically on
equal footing, which is to say you would
have to have something like political pluralism as a
condition of possibility of it. And then each could bring in the
public debate at various levels the visions or aspects of
vision of their own lives. And I see no reason
why that could not take place all the
way from classrooms to a variety of circles in
which we find ourselves. And by the way, we have tried
to tailor this type of course for religious institutions,
for high schools, as well and some also for
Divinity School so that folks can do it in a
variety of settings and engage in what is
transformative dialogue about truth of our
individual lives and of our living
together all in one. I think this is the great
challenge of our time. This is a great
challenge that we are facing both
those of us who are religious in terms of certain
shallow forms of secularism. And I here primarily mean a
kind of practical secularism of denial of
transcendence carried on the wings of economic kind
of institutional forms of making a living as we have it now. But we can discover
and rediscover the depths of our
humanity in conversation with great religious traditions. I think, as a
religious person, this would be such a cool thing. That we will then contend with
each other, that seems fine. Why not? Just contend in peace. But what’s at stake is
really the very shape of our existence. Why not contend about it? Just be kind and make
bridges towards others. See in the others not
just how you differ. And especially if you
want to start making it about truth seeking
conversation then the goal is also to see
the truth in the other, rather than simply
peddle your own truth. Therefore, be enriched
and enrich others while stabilizing and
enriching your own identity. Thank you very much. [applause] (Participant) Thank you very
much for your talk. Your class sounds fascinating. I really wish I could take it. But then I wondered if I took
your class, whether I would in fact be very depressed. And here’s why. When I think about
truth claims being made by different
religious traditions, and you come in with your
own religious tradition and you encounter other
religious traditions, when you think about that in the
abstract it’s one thing. But when you think about
it in the concrete, your religious
tradition, you know the Western religious
tradition, embodies a certain kind of metaphysics. A whole imaginary of time. A whole set of connections. A whole set of– imbued but almost taken for
granted tacit pre-suppositions about how the world works. And if I say as a Christian
past the age of 25, we’ll just leave it there,
sort of say, oh my gosh, I’m part of a religious
tradition that has all of these assumptions. But it’s wrong. Buddhism seems to me
to have the truth, or Islam seems to have
the truth, or Judaism. But I can’t reconfigure
all of the substrate of the metaphysics
of the culture, of the language to be
Islam, the role of Arabic. Past 30 Arabic is a bit tough. What do you do? What do your students do
when they confront the fact or if they confront
the fact that they may have been born in– they may have been
unlucky enough to be born in the wrong tradition? (Dr. Volf) It’s a fantastic question. I really like it. Most of them don’t. And we don’t track carefully
what happens afterwards. Maybe we should. I mean for no other
reason than for being able to teach this
class better because we are interested in their
lives being transformed. Last paper they write, they
write their own little credo in the light of these seven
questions that we were asking. But most shifts that I have
seen that occur in the class are not this global shifts of
the entirety of my commitments and all of their
implications, which is what you are articulating
quite rightly that they often come with a package
that has a weight to it. Shifts come more on
an existential level. And the implications
may be worked out over periods of time. Shifts come mainly within
each of the traditions. So that they suddenly
become more deeply aware in the light of other
traditions of their own. So majority of students
that leave the class, they leave the class with kind
of almost stabilized tradition. Clarity about their
own tradition. Clarity about the reasons,
possible reasons why. Not very deep reasons, right? But kind of a– we need we want to set
them on the journey so that it doesn’t
end with the class, it begins with the class. And most of them,
frankly, said– I was completely surprised
after I taught the class for the first time. I saw that it was
a decent class, and I think I’m
relatively emotionally intelligent teacher. I’m not brilliant emotionally
but I’m not totally dumb either. So I can assess what’s going on. And I thought the
class went well. And then last class
everything was already fishing and I tell students help us. I want to teach this again. Help us do better. What did we do right? What did we do wrong? It was just amazing
how hungry they were for something of that sort. I had students arguing
opposite side of the table should this be taught for first
year students or for seniors? I had debates
going on, should it be taught for one
semester or two semesters? I had testimonies of
transformed lives. And not what kind of
religious conversions, but sense of self awareness. And a lot of them said, this is
the best class I’ve ever taken. So I am sure it can be
improved, but I less worry about the seismic shifts. But if they go on a
journey, it will happen. (Participant) You mentioned that in order
to kind of bring together different people of
religious backgrounds that we need to see the
truth in one another. I’m curious to hear what
your definition may not be the right word but what
your description of truth is, because it almost sounds
like you think that truth could be something flexible,
something that may differ from religious
groups to religious group. And truths don’t necessarily
cancel each other out. Can you speak a
little bit to that? (Dr. Volf) Oh, I do think
that they sometimes cancel themselves out. I was speaking
about truth claims. I didn’t make a statement
that all religions were true. I said that all religions,
for the majority part, they claim to be true. So I deal with them
as truth claims. And some of them you can see
how there are overlaps there, how there are
variations of maybe one and the same thing with slight
difference, but some of them you see that they kind
of but against each other in significant ways. And the example that I gave
was when the discussions were about the
common word, and that is discussion among
friends, Doctrine of a Trinity for
instance for Christians, for a lot of Christians
this is a kind of fundamental convictions. You can see how it’s not at
complete opposite of what Muslims think about God,
but you can see also how differences are significant
how they push to the side. I don’t think Ghazi will mind
that if I tell you, even before the immediately after we wrote the response
to the common word, maybe a few weeks later,
I went to see Ghazi. I was on the way to Dubai,
I stopped in Jordan, he received me with– we were all these
friends now because we were on the same page
in so many things because I was supporting this. And then in the course of
that first evening, first time I met him, in the course of
the conversation became OK, question of evangelism. And I said, you know, Christian
faith is evangelistic religion. We had a discussion
until 3:00 in the evening about that very issue. And we wrestled with it. What does it mean? Obviously, Muslims
perceive that often and it’s often practiced
in a horrible way, right? But does that mean
you step back from it? Or does it mean well maybe
part of a common word is to have a common ethics of
bearing witness or something of that sort, right? And so the debates were
clearly about something that we couldn’t quite agree. And I think we became friends
through the discussions of this sort. (Participant) Hello, thank you. You said that in this course
you function as a referee. I like to make sure everybody– I found that– and so do all
dialogues require an authority figure and who decides
who this gets to be? (Dr. Volf) Well, they either
require some kind of a– they require a set of rules. I think either implicit
or explicit kind of rules. Very simple ones. And they are not very
difficult to agree on. They are rules of decency. Normally kids learn them when
they sit around the table and have conversations
with their parents and with their siblings. I don’t think much
more complicated rules are necessary. It’s just sometimes
needed to enforce to make sure that
they’re observed when things become really volatile. Now, once you start
digging deeper down there is a whole huge complex
world of reading one’s self, reading the other
person, reading one’s self in conversation
with the other person. It becomes very
quickly very rich I think I would
say conversation. But something like
agreed upon rules. And students students easily agree. I do very little
actually interventions. They think it’s– I’m sure it’s the same
in Boston College. They have no problem with
the kind of pluralism with kind of respect
of other persons. Indeed, the pushback that
one receives with this idea of truth is not so
much because students– that’s my experience at Yale– not so much because they don’t
believe that certain things are true, but they don’t want to
impose truth upon other people. Imposition is a very, very– thing they’re very,
very sensitive. And so sometimes,
unthinkingly, they might go a relativist route
rather than affirmation of truth, just because they’re
sensitive to imposition upon others. I am very sensitive
about imposition. Imposition is just a bad thing. And it’s a bad thing from
whichever end you look at it. And this is the kind
of thing that we try to– just make sure that
the people don’t move there. So yes, some rules will
be good and there will be folks who might need a referee. (Participant) Just like going off of what
you were talking about, you said you identified
as Christian. And since you’re speaking
on world religions, do you find it difficult
to kind of speak on things that you are an outsider of? So do you think
that you sometimes have to work on operating
outside of a certain lens that you’ve been shaped
into seeing things with? (Dr. Volf) Yeah, this is a
very good question. I think one needs
something like– that’s why we need
interlocutors, right, so that I don’t simply
in my imagination make a leap to try to imagine
myself how things feel and look from inside of the faith. But I actually have a living
and breathing human being who after I’ve formulated
this can talk back to me and say no, no, no, you’ve
got it completely wrong. Or you missed this side of it. And once you add
this side of it, everything looks very different. I mean my experience is the
same when I talk to some of my secularist friends. There’s a very, very fine
book that I mentioned, Tony Kronman, he’s
written recently a kind of a doorstopper of
a book of about 1,100 pages called Confessions of
a Born-Again Pagan. And when he was talking on
the occasion of publication of this book he said, a
friend of his came to him and said Tony, I bought
two copies of your book. And Tony said, why two? He said, when I park
my car on an incline so I can make sure
it doesn’t roll off. And maybe the other
one I might read. But it’s a magnificent
and wonderful book and we’re close friends. But when when when he talks for
instance about gratitude as something that is a
feature of Christian faith, I think Tony, you just– it sounds like Christian but
it doesn’t feel like Christian might feel that way
but we don’t, and here are the reasons why. And I can imagine
myself very well when I talk about any of the
other religions doing exactly the same thing. To me, from outside, it sounds
like this is how it reads. This is what consequences are. This is what feelings
it should illicit. And I find myself
completely in the wrong. So I need that other
set of eyes and I need to imaginatively place
myself and see myself. I read the other from my vantage
point and then get corrected. And continue engaging
in the process. (Participant) So after all of this
kind of exchange of truth among
different religions, do you think the ultimate
goal of a society would be to come to
some kind of consensus? Would that bring us to
more enrichment in general if we had some
kind of consensus? Or do you think that
it’s going to always be an individual process of
finding the meaning of life and it’s always
going to be something that you pick out certain truths
that are meaningful to you? Or would let’s say a Utopian
society have some kind of universal idea of truth? (Dr. Volf) Yeah, I’m not very
hopeful that and I don’t think we should aspire to
come to a single truth, which would be somehow then
kind of characterize some kind of Utopian society. Presumably it would have to
be in some ways then managed. And managing of a single
truth society seems to me a rather bad idea. I think that in terms of a
common life that we have, I think kind of for
search for common word, to use that phrase. Commonality without
eraser of differences seems to be workable,
seems to me possible. And I think that’s
what we should aspire. Which is to say, we may– in democratic processes we
may come to common agreements. These agreements would be kind
of rolling agreements, right? They are negotiable
all the time. While at the same
time, each one of us more personally might have
much more sturdy convictions about things that
concern personal life. Certain forms of
compromises, and above all, certain forms of not thinking
that all our ethical norm ought to be legislated
upon everybody else. A kind of discernment, what
is it that needs to be common and needs to be
assured to be common. And what can be simply a
moral code of a community or a moral code even
of an individual. Those kinds of
discerning judgments would need to be would need to be made. I’m very much a political
pluralism as you see in what we’re talking right now is. I think most people are some
form of religious exclusivist that you can be either very
open or very closed kind, but it’s very hard to avoid it. So some form of religious
exclusivism I think is just fine. I mean, people can have
opinions that they have, but I wouldn’t worry
too much about that. Provided you affirm robustly
political pluralism. Because I think the two
notions or two forms of political arrangements we
must resist is on the one hand is the secular
exclusion of religion from the public sphere. But on the other hand is a kind
of totalitarian self-position on religion, a single religion
upon the whole society. These have been traditionally
butting against each other, and frankly, religious folks
have not very much difficulty embracing democracy as
they have difficulty embracing embracing political pluralism. But secularists aren’t
much better actually at it. Especially if you bring
in religious folks. Suddenly hesitations
become similar to those that religious folks
have, just in a little bit different register. And so I think we
need to work on having a kind of workable
political philosophy that will accommodate robust
forms of committed views in a pluralistic setting. (Participant) I know you’ve talked
about tradition texts in the classroom. Have you talked at all
about the classroom specific practices of each
tradition and what role does that play? (Dr. Volf) That’s a great question. Another thing that we do, we
try to take signature practice of each of these traditions. Sometimes it’s more difficult
to do it for secular traditions, but we kind of figure it out. And it has been
tremendously illuminating. So we devote a whole– I’m not sure one
or two sessions– about each tradition is devoted
to a particular practice. So in Judaism it will
be Sabbath Keeping. In Christian
tradition, Eucharist. We discussed last time Eucharist
or something like that. What we would often
do is that’s what I did last time with my students. I said, you know I’m not Jewish,
but for one day, one Sabbath, I’m going to observe. Who’s going to join me? And so out of 18,
I think 13 of us. Complete observance
of Sabbath and then having Shabbat meal together
and then discussing what have we learned? How would it be to
inhabit this tradition? Plays a very very important role. We also bring–
for each tradition, we bring a kind of non
specialist representative of the tradition. So if it’s say of a religious
tradition, we don’t want– don’t want– we would
prefer not to have somebody who is either theologian
or priest, but somebody who in secular vocations, life,
represents and embodies that tradition. We bring them in and
said what does it mean for you to live this
tradition in the here and now? We ask them to read what they
have read so that they know– the person who comes
knows roughly how what discussions were and
the basis of which text. And then ask them to
assign us reading as well. What’s significant
for them as they practice that particular faith. And then we discuss it. Those sessions are
very, very important. (Participant) Thank you. Great talk and conversation. One thing I’m
really curious about is how this learning from
other religious traditions– at some point, if you
could give actually a specific example
perhaps of some way that some part of that learning
from some other tradition actually began to
inform what it means to have a meaningful
conversation such that people were beginning to learn
about, maybe to notice, that I haven’t been entering
into the conversation in the way I really
mean to, which is actually part of the theme of
your course, how to cultivate. How to actually learn to live. And it begins to affect how
at least some students are entering into conversation. What it means to have a
meaningful conversation is actually being informed by
the learning and the changing. Any example of that? (Dr. Volf) Thatsa great– I’d have to think about this. What mostly comes to mind is
a kind of attentive learning. Learning about something
and then that kind of shift of the attentiveness
to other traditions. So I remember one
kid who never– somehow forgiveness was such
a strange concept for him. And we had the one time
practice of forgiveness as a as a Christian practice. And he was just completely
puzzled by this idea. How it works, what happens. He was certainly
attracted to the idea, but didn’t know the
mechanics of it were, what the background
of this could be. It had an effect where we’re
not just kind of attending more to say in this particular
case a Christian tradition, but also to other traditions
in terms of how what he might learn and surprises that might occur. I think that’s shaped
above all I think how the teacher acts in the class. If the teacher is porous to
learn from students as they are engaged. Students kind of almost
mimic sometimes or at least learn a certain style of
engaging with other ideas. Generosity which one does. A certain kind of openness
to and vulnerability. And it works the best
if that’s nurtured on the part of teachers. So maybe I short changed
our role as referees, because that seems so
incredibly impersonal. In fact, I think
it works the best– we always, each
teacher identifies themselves traditions
from which they come. So it’s no secret
to the students. It’s not something that they
can identify themselves. We’re happy with traditions
which we inhabit. And then when students
see a certain porousness, a certain learning that occurs
on the part of the teachers themselves, it’s amazing. Or other vulnerabilities. We had a teacher who
had two close family members have died in
the course of teaching that course for the
first time she taught it. And she is highly, highly
emotionally intelligent and was very vulnerable
with the students. They just absolutely loved
her, and the whole course acquired a different meaning
for them, a deeper meaning. (Participant) I have a question
about the tension that I feel between the
way you set up the course and the way religions
understand themselves. So the title of the lecture
was on religious exclusivism and interreligious dialogue. But when I think of how
you set up the course, it seems like you an enact
a form of pluralism where the students have all these
religions at their disposal and they all have
elements of truth and they create a sort
of self-aware religiosity based on what they find in
different religious traditions. But the religions
themselves are, of course, in a very different situation
of tension and incompatibility in many respects
with one another. So I was trying to understand
sort of the tension that I felt between,
on the one hand, the religious exclusivism
of the religions and what you enact
in the course, which is, in fact, a form of
pluralism where students can pick from different religions. So that’s one part of it. But then I, in fact,
just wanted to end by asking if you
could say something about how the common word and
your dialogue with Muslims has changed your own
self-understanding maybe about those two topics, love
of God and love of neighbor, as a Christian. Whether there is
something that you have learned in the
process from your dialogue with Muslims about those two
topics maybe as a final note. (Dr. Volf) Great questions. So the way I think of the
class is that the environment is one of social and
kind of structured pluralism, which
corresponds roughly to kind of political pluralistic
arrangements. That’s the framework
in which class occurs. There affirmation that
each religious tradition makes truth claims. There is not a claim that
each of these traditions is exclusive in the class. And I’m not sure that I would
want to make that claim. I just want to make the claim
that they make truth claims. Whether students
then think that they can pick and choose and
make something third, or what I think
more often happens is that they treat the
religious tradition or secular tradition as actually
making truth claims. Many of them they resist. Some of them they don’t
just take and transplant making something third. They kind of a learning
process occurs. Certain forms of enrichment
of their tradition while not denying
the truth claim. So that would be a form of
maybe religious exclusivism with which I’m very comfortable. I’m very comfortable about
talking about Christian faith being true. When I say Christian
faith is true I have to say somehow that
in a significant sense others aren’t, right? In certain significant areas. But that at the same time, kind
of learning process can occur. Now I’d have to have an account
then why that’s possible. Both kind of
epistemological account and maybe religious
metaphysical account of why that kind of
learning is possible. And I do have it. But so in some sense my
experience of the class was, it’s kind of negotiating
exclusivist claims that is being embodied here. Of course, students sometimes– students that we get often
aren’t representatives of those traditions. And that’s where for them
it may be complicated. So what we have as
a task is don’t just treat them as something that
you can simply pick and choose. It’s too simple, too
easy for you to do that, because tomorrow you’re
going to decide oh no, I’m going to combine some
other different thing which seems to be helpful in
this particular moment. We try to emphasize that
these traditions are generally they think of flourishing
life is life that is across the span of lived life. That somehow has a weight. Sometimes we talk about
martyrdom and issues of this sort where this is this is
more important than life itself for many of the folks. So trying to kind of
bring it close to them. Some of them are
responsive easily to that. Others have to learn as
something really maybe a bit strange for them. But in the strangeness is
I think important for then. Common word. Specifically on– I can
talk a lot of things about what I have learned. I can think also
of transformation in spiritual practice
that has occurred for me. The Kind of The kind of reverence with
which Muslims approach– at least Muslims that I
encountered– obviously it’s a very, very general
claim, Muslims right? But the kind of
reverence with which Unity of God and uniqueness
and in a very significant sense Uniqueness of God is being
lived out by Muslims, has for me left a deep mark
on how I relate to God. And it wasn’t something
strange in a sense, but it’s something that kind of
shook the shook me into actually taking seriously what I believed. So it was in a sense
an insight into what I thought my
tradition was saying, but somehow I’ve been
accustomed not to think. Something like Holiness
of God, which I tended not to think in those terms. I tended to subsume
very easily holiness into love, which I still do. But in maybe too mushy of a way. And a kind of robust
push on their side I think it was very
important, very significant. I think for me it
was genuine learning. I remember also– maybe
this is a good point to end. It’s a very kind of personal
and spiritual if you want. But my mother is a woman
of prayer, she was. She used to pray for
1 and 1/2 hours a day early in the morning and she
was trying to nurture that in us as well. And I try to pray
for five minutes and I think all these
words are bouncing off of walls coming back to me. That means nothing. Somehow it’s not getting to me. So she was always worried
about her son who– I was very honest with
her what was happening, but she was worried
and so I remember once I had a
conversation with Ghazi and I think I told him a story
about a friend of ours whose son had religious experience and
he heard God speaking to him. And so I’m telling that
to Ghazi because it was our mutual friend. And so Ghazi said to me– and my mother is there
listening to the conversation– phone conversation but
she could hear everything. And so he says, but
you know Miroslav, we have in Islam we have a
very careful kind of criteria by which we can
adjudicate and judge, discern when and how it is
that we can know whether it was God speaking or
I don’t know what he was speaking to a person. And I said, yeah Ghazi, we have
the same or similar things. And so we go on into
the whole process of how we discern our
spiritual experiences, right? And then I end the conversation. My mother said you
know, this Ghazi guy is really good for you. Which is exactly right. He is good and we have
become very close friends.

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