Living with the "Other"

By Volf, Miroslav | Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

Living with the "Other"


Volf, Miroslav, Journal of Ecumenical Studies


Introduction: Speaking in a Christian Voice

I consider it an honor and a privilege to address this gathering of the representatives from the three great families of "Abraham's children"--Jews, Christians, and Muslims. I am especially delighted that we are gathering in the great city of Skopje. In recent years Macedonia and its capital Skopje have suffered their share of violence. Though the causes of violence are many, religious differences among Macedonia's various ethnic groups are certainly among them. Hence, it is important to examine what each of our traditions says about living with the other and to highlight resources that they provide for overcoming enmities and living in peace.

Since I am a Christian and have been invited to deliver "the Christian keynote address," I will speak in a Christian voice. Though I seek to be faithful to the broad Christian tradition, I cannot speak authoritatively for all Christians; nobody can, because ecclesiastically Christians are not a monolithic group, and even within a single church there is often disagreement and spirited debate. So, I offer here my rendering of what the Christian tradition says about "living with 'the other.'" Before coming to the substance of my presentation, however, let me briefly indicate what I mean by speaking in a "Christian voice" in an interfaith context. A simple way to do so is to discard two wrongheaded options and then suggest a better one.

Some suggest that all major world religions are basically more or less the same. What is significant in each is common to them all. What makes each differ from others is only a husk conditioned by various human mentalities but holding an identical kernel. In An Interpretation of Religion John Hick came close to this view in that, together with Jalalu'l-Din Rumi, he argued that "the lamps are different, but the Light is the same." (1) To speak in a Christian voice from the perspective of such an understanding of religion means to engage in cracking the husk of difference that distinguishes the Christian faith from other religions and displaying the kernel that unites it with them. Whoever speaks authentically in a Christian voice will end up agreeing with representatives of other religions, provided they do the same.

While all major religions have much in common, including some fundamental convictions, and while their adherents all possess the same human dignity and therefore command the same respect, it is not clear that all religions are basically the same. Most of their adherents would disagree with the claim and feel that the one making it did not sufficiently respect them in their own specificity but was, as it were, looking through them in search of an artificially constructed essence of their religion. My sense is that they would be correct. Major religions represent distinctive, overarching interpretations of life, with partly overlapping and partly competing metaphysical, historical, and moral claims. To treat all religions as basically the same is to insert them into a frame of meaning without sufficiently appreciating, as Michael Barnes put it in Theology and the Dialogue of Religions, "the irreducible mystery of otherness" of religions. (2) It is because all major religions are not the same that it is worth engaging in dialogues; such dialogues are exercises in mutual learning about ourselves and others. Equally, it is because all major religions are not the same that their adherents rightly argue with each other about the merits and truth-content of their respective religions.

An alternative view agrees that major world religions represent distinct overarching interpretations of life, but it suggests that what is important in each tradition is precisely the places where they differ. This view is rarely defended theoretically; it represents more an unreflective way of relating to other religions, a stance toward them. …

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