Academic journal article Theological Studies

As Long as We Wonder: Possibilities in the Impossibility of Interreligious Dialogue

Academic journal article Theological Studies

As Long as We Wonder: Possibilities in the Impossibility of Interreligious Dialogue

Article excerpt

The application of George Lindbeck's cultural-linguistic approach to interreligious dialogue calls' into question our ability to communicate across the divide of different religious traditions. Examining his postliberal theology and accepting Lindbeck's caution about the difficulty of understanding a tradition other than one's own, the aims of interreligious encounter need to be revised. This article draws on the theological traditions of God's incomprehensibility as overabundance and offers "wonder" as a theological fruit of interreligious exchange.

INTERCONNECTED SYSTEMS OF INFORMATION, economics, and politics have shrunk our world. The flow of persons in this globalized context makes encounter with difference a daily reality as persons of diverse cultures and religions are increasingly becoming neighbors. Whether "neighbor" means genuine relationship or simply a common location, dialogue is a clear necessity. In sharing the future of planet Earth with persons who are religiously "other," conversations across differences are essential. Fortunately, from a Christian perspective, mainstream religious leaders, both Protestant and Catholic, have encouraged such conversations. Interreligious dialogues have proliferated in many forms, from academic discourses to organized exchanges in local communities. As these become more sophisticated and increasingly constructed as genuine dialogue, the possibility for understanding across religious difference is held up as an admirable goal. (1) Yet, George Lindbeck's postliberal theology with its outline of the cultural-linguistic theory of religion should give pause to the enthusiastic embrace of dialogue as a means to theological understanding. While the appearance of his The Nature of Doctrine attracted much attention, his insights regarding projects of dialogue have not been fully applied. (2) Nearly 25 years later, his caution that understanding across religious difference is a practical impossibility can lead to finding new theological possibilities in interreligious dialogue.

LINDBECK'S POSTLIBERAL THEOLOGY IN CONTEXT

Lindbeck's postliberal theology can be situated in a broader history of theological responses to religious pluralism that sees a pendulum swing in the Christian response to religious difference. (3) For the better part of Christian history, dialogue was also seen as impossible, unnecessary, or fruitless. The exclusivist theology of "no salvation outside the Church" structured negative encounters of conquest, colonialism, and missionary endeavors that could only rarely be called "dialogue." Radical difference was invoked by the upper hand of power to disastrous effect for those labeled "infidels" or "savages." (4) Those who did engage in dialogue with non-Christians met not only the resistance of Christian authorities but also the more diffuse European attitudes of cultural superiority. (5) In some readings of history, this negative encounter was to be followed by a more enlightened awakening to what was shared among people of diverse faiths. For, after colonial explorations paved the way, and colonial administrators, explorers, and missionaries began feeding information back to their homelands, European universities began to study religions (in the plural), thereby prompting new theological reflection and "dialogue" in a textual sense. (6) With access to the scriptures of other traditions, philosophers and theologians alike began to reflect not only from the particular of Christian doctrine, but from the universal of "natural religion." (7) But, as postcolonial investigations demonstrate, the study of religions that provided the foundation for imagined dialogue with other faiths was structured to privilege the religion of the colonizers. (8) Now, universality and similarity were invoked alongside a hierarchical ordering with the effect of rendering the "other" as "less than" oneself. Or, in the words of Lynda Lange, the other was not perceived as other, but rather as "deficient examples of the 'same. …

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