Dialogue as Speech Act and Discourse: Methods to Understand What Interreligious Dialogue Does with Reference to a Common Word between Us and You

By Horsfjord, Vebjorn L. | Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Summer 2013 | Go to article overview

Dialogue as Speech Act and Discourse: Methods to Understand What Interreligious Dialogue Does with Reference to a Common Word between Us and You


Horsfjord, Vebjorn L., Journal of Ecumenical Studies


How does interreligious dialogue work, and what do dialogue partners really do? A recurring criticism of interreligious dialogue is that it is "only words," and there are regular calls to go "from words to action." However, the relationship between speech and action is more complex than such criticism sometimes appears to presuppose. The question posed is: Can speech act theory give insights into how interreligious dialogue works? (1) I will explore whether speech act analysis can provide a complementary reading strategy to other reading strategies, and I understand my attempt as a contribution to a broadly defined field of discourse analytical approaches to interreligious dialogue.

As a specific example of interreligious dialogue I have chosen some key documents from what we may call the Common Word dialogue process. This in itself is a particular type of interreligious dialogue: dialogue by exchange of written documents and prepared statements read at conferences of senior religious leaders and scholars. The process is well known: In October, 2007, a group of 138 Muslim leaders, spanning all continents and all major streams within Islam, sent a seven-teen-page open letter called A Common Word between Us and You, addressed to the pope, to twenty-six other named church leaders, and to "leaders of Christian Churches everywhere." The core message of the document, which uses extensive quotes from the Qur'an, the hadith, and the Bible, is that Islam and Christianity share the twin commandment to love God and love neighbor and that this "common ground" can be the starting point for further dialogue to promote understanding and "world peace." Many Christian leaders have responded: Some 300 scholars and church leaders, mainly from the United States, signed a response produced at Yale University and printed in The New York Times on November 18, 2007. The World Evangelical Alliance and the Archbishop of Canterbury are among the many other church leaders and organizations that have written documents in response. (2) A Common Word has also sparked a series of conferences, one of which took place at Georgetown University in October, 2009. In this essay I will use examples from the original Muslim letter together with the three Christian responses just mentioned.

In the opening paragraph of the Yale response, the authors wrote: "We receive the open letter as a Muslim hand of conviviality and cooperation extended to Christians world-wide. In this response we extend our own Christian hand in return." Later, referring to love for neighbor, they wrote, "Indeed, in the generosity with which the letter is written you embody what you call for." Such references to concrete bodily manifestations are suggestive of the self-involvement prevalent in these texts. This is a feature found in much interreligious dialogue activity. Whether written or spoken, interreligious dialogue is a type of self-involving activity that requires a self-involving language: As much as exploring, describing, and discussing some external reality, interreligious dialogue involves committing oneself, inviting the other, acknowledging, asserting, questioning, and promising--acts that are carded out by the use of language, through speech actions, with the clear intention to change the world that dialogue partners share. (3)

Following a brief outline of key issues in speech act theory, I will present three examples of how this can be applied to texts of the Common Word dialogue process and finally suggest a direction for further research.

Speech Act Theory

I would like to avert one fundamental misunderstanding to which my comments so far might give rise: Speech act theory is not primarily concerned with identifying specific types of utterances as speech acts. On the contrary, a central insight in John Austin's 1962 How to Do Things with Words, the reference point to which all later work within this field relates, is that all utterances are (also) speech acts. …

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Dialogue as Speech Act and Discourse: Methods to Understand What Interreligious Dialogue Does with Reference to a Common Word between Us and You
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