Against Interfaith-Dialogical Mushiness

By Thomas V. Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jun 04, 2015

At Good Letters, a blog hosted by Image journal, poet Brian Volck writes on the falsity of the cliché "All religions are really saying the same thing in different words."

Volck notes that successful interfaith dialogues, such as the one between the Dalai Lama and Thomas Merton in 1968, are effective precisely because each participant is deeply rooted in his own particular religious tradition, with a concrete set of beliefs and disciplines. Many proponents of interfaith dialogue, on the other hand, tend to reduce each faith to a vague, abstract "message."

He continues:

Consider again the sentence “All religions are really saying the same thing in different words,” of which every word is contestable. How much scholarship is necessary before one can make even the simplest observation about all religions? What particular definition of religion would you use to embrace Christianity, Buddhism, Confucianism, and, if new Atheist Sam Harris has his way in redefining “religion,” Marxist-Leninism as well?

One might as well claim all governments are “really saying the same thing,” since all attempt, in decidedly different ways, to establish an equilibrium between individual action and public order.

...What I’m suggesting here is not that religions (whatever we designate with that word) can’t engage in meaningful conversation or find common ground.... But such conversations will only be fruitful when engaged by those who have experienced their particular tradition profoundly, thoroughly, and honestly and who are willing to claim it. The “first world” assertion that one can engage the Other from a position of objective neutrality is, quite simply, a modernist lie that should have died with the collapse of European colonialism.

Each one of us—even the nonbeliever—speaks from a particular place within a tradition—from “somewhere,” not an abstract “anywhere.” I have little patience for non-practicing pundits who “stay above the fray” and boutique multiculturalists who pick and choose what suits them rather than deeply entering one tradition. ...That's why I look for truth less in the abstract pronouncements of dabblers or so-called experts than in the practical words of monks.

Thomas V. Mirus is an administrative assistant and writer at CatholicCulture.org. A jazz pianist with a music degree, he often takes the lead in our commentary on the arts. See full bio.

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