Humility, Commitment, Trust in Interconnectedness, Empathy and Hospitality: Cultivating Dispositions for Interfaith Dialogue

Catherine Cornille, in her splendid book The Im-Possibiity of Interreligious Dialogue (Orbis Books, 2008), summarizes the virtues or dispositions that seem to be required of anyone who wants to take up the exciting venture of entering into a conversation with religious traditions and persons different from one’s own religious practice.

These virtues are worth pondering and practicing.

a) Humility: Inter-religious dialoguers are simply not going to be able to do what they want to do unless they are humble about what they already know through their own religion. Dialogue is stymied before it takes off unless all participants admit to themselves that no matter how much they have discovered in their own traditions, there is always more to know. Cornille calls this “doctrinal humility”: as true as any religious doctrine or belief may be, it can never be the whole truth. Religions deal with divine or transcendent truth. No human mind or system can contain the fullness of such truth. Few, if any, religions would contest this claim (pp. 9–58).

b) Commitment: But for inter-religious dialogue to be successful, all the partici­pants have to hold firm to, and have to be held firm by, the truth they do possess through their religious traditions. Dialogue is not chit-chat. It is not just trading information. It is truth that matters, and matters not just for me, but also for you. So my commitment to my own beliefs will inspire and require me not just to explain them to you, but to witness them to you. I want to persuade you to share in the liberating truth that I have experienced (59–94).

c) Trust in Interconnectedness: Within the rooted commitments of all participants in inter-religious dialogue, all of them have to also trust that, despite the depth of their commitments and despite the often incommensurable difference between religious perspectives, there is “something” that makes it possible for religious believers to understand each other and to challenge each other. If, as is often heard, the religions of the world are “apples and oranges” and cannot be com­pared, inter-religious dialoguers insist that they are all interconnected in their natures as fruit. Being fruit, they can relate to, and understand, one another. This is not to say where or how to find this “fruit-fulness.” But it does affirm the need to trust that it exists (95–136).

d) Empathy: This virtue signals the need for inter-religious dialogue to be personal, even intimate. While we are rooted in our own commitments, we also have to, somehow, get inside the commitments of our dialogue partners. We have to try to understand them not just with the clarity of our minds but also with the sensitivity of our hearts. That requires a goodly amount of “letting go,” of allow­ing your imagination to lead you into new space. Empathy is the energy that animates what theologians of dialogue have called the process of “passing over” into another tradition’s symbols, stories, and practices, and then “passing back” to see what difference this experience of the other makes for the understanding of one’s own (137–176).

e) Hospitality: This virtue is pivotal among all the others. Cornille calls it “the sole sufficient condition for dialogue” (177). Simply, but challengingly, it means that if we invite other believers into our own religious home as guests, then we will not be good hosts, real hosts, unless we are genuinely open to the gifts that they bring us. We have to be open to receiving gifts of truth and insight that are new, different, and perhaps in tension with our own. Hospitality is really the flip-side of humility: if we realize that we can never claim the last word of Truth, we have to be eagerly open to receiving more of that Truth from others. What is really different from what we believe may be a needed addition to, or correction for, what we already believe. Hospitality makes dialogue exciting, but also threatening. Unless we are truly open to being threatened, we are not going to be able to dialogue (177–210).

-by Paul Knitter

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