Response to Davies, Ahmed, and Valkenberg
Article first published online: 15 AUG 2013
© 2013 John Wiley & Sons Ltd
Volume 30, Issue 1, pages 153–158, January 2014
How to Cite
Burrell, D. B. (2014), Response to Davies, Ahmed, and Valkenberg. Modern Theology, 30: 153–158. doi: 10.1111/moth.12074
- Issue published online: 5 DEC 2013
- Article first published online: 15 AUG 2013
Comparative theology is a relatively new sub-discipline in theology itself, though a primary goal of us who engage in it is to persuade theologians that comparative work has always been integral to theology itself. Indeed the very name “theology” displays the efforts of early Christian thinkers to engage with others to render the teachings of faith accessible to a world of wider inquiry. “Sacred teaching” [sacra doctrina] could only develop from rote transmission to “teaching” by utilizing a language connecting community idioms with surrounding discourses. Sometimes mis-described as a dialogue between “faith” and “reason,” as though these were two separate intellectual realms, any elaboration of dicta of faith beyond the very terms of scripture would inevitably require importing language from the surrounding culture. The earliest salient example was the council of Nicaea's incorporating the technical expression homoousion [“of one nature” or “consubstantial”] into the creed promulgated there. When adopting non-scriptural language was challenged, Athanasius accepted the charge but declared it irrelevant: “although the term may not be found in scripture, the reality pervades it.”
So the move to “theology” was authorized by incorporating a mode of discourse found to be needed to articulate Christian teaching itself. Why? In this case and many others, it was necessary to clarify ambiguities in the dicta of scripture. Yet if the language adopted may have been novel, the impulse to adopt it reflected early Christian practice. This abbreviated account of the genesis of what we have come to call “thelogy” summarizes the work of two Christian theologians who have mentored many of us: Bernard Lonergan and George Lindbeck. What it seeks to remind theologians, however, is that we have all been working comparatively from the beginning. For since the primary sources of revelation in any tradition are expressed in a way which will demand interpretation, thinkers in each tradition have ever sought for a language in which to communicate the dicta of revelation to themselves and to others in the wider world in which they all partake. In this basic sense, the very move to what we have come to call “theology” is inherently comparative, like being reminded one has been speaking prose all one's life! And the same obtains in Judaism and in Islam, as the thinkers I chose as interlocutors clearly display, yet many others as well.
A more explicitly conscious comparative step occurred within the Abrahamic faiths as each sought to express a faith they held in common: the free creation of the universe by one God. Over against a prevailing philosophical pattern cast in the idiom of “emanation,” each tradition sought ways to show how the universe we know is grounded in the sovereign freedom of one creator. And in the event, during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, these endeavors were able to tap into each other's efforts to produce a forum of mutual illumination comparable to the critical early example of Nicaea. Yet by then, attempts of each tradition to incorporate cultural idioms to enrich and shape its respective teaching on free creating became accessible to others, thereby adding the further dimension of learning from another's way of doing it. Thus, when time came for current practitioners in each tradition to begin monitoring exchanges between thinkers in different traditions, an explicitly comparative theology emerged, showing how traditions have developed by learning from one another. As we shall see, cultural factors have greatly facilitated these opportunities to learn from each other in recent times, yet examples from the history of theology prove both telling and encouraging.
So my initial study focused on exchanges among thinkers in different traditions, though historians have been at work to flesh out the milieux favorable or not to such interaction. The “exchange” among Moses Maimonides [1135–1204], Thomas Aquinas [1225–74] and Avicenna [980–1037] had to be re-constructed, of course, given the disparity in their respective lifespans, yet the one who came last explicitly cited the other two, and we know how reading and responding to another amounts to a virtual exchange, resisting reduction to vague metaphors of “influence.” Nor need we remind ourselves that this virtual exchange in the kingdom of Naples contrasted starkly with the boiling oil traded in Acre, so what remains surprising is a climate which freed thinkers to engage in such exchange, however virtual. Indeed, Aquinas’ early training at Monte Cassino, and later engagement with the fledgling Dominican community of friars in university centers across Europe, testifies to the contributions of monasticism and its successor institutions to scholarship in the west. All of this transpired in the midst of parlous societal structures, while the more politically sophisticated Islamicate effectively left scholars beholden to the patronage of current rulers, as their memoirs clearly show.
Yet despite all that, focusing on thinkers allows us to minimize chauvinistic tendencies of religious traditions to presume their exclusive hold on truth in such matters. Not that any of the persons cited held attitudes close to a contemporary sense of “pluralist,” which we shall canvass later, but that each—as religious believer—adopted a humble stance regarding the adequacy of the formulations of his own traditions in matters concerning the creator of all. For while they all shared a revealed perspective on the free origin of the universe, each would struggle to find proper ways to articulate how a transcendent God can be free creator of all. Daniel Davies ably associates this task with “divine transcendence,” to remind us how central a role Moses ben Maimon played in Jewish traditions to articulate this intellectual dimension of the strictures against idolatry. His essay excels in displaying the way central features of theological inquiry can be clarified across Abrahamic faiths though mutual attempts to articulate the elusive notion of divine transcendence. Indeed, his remarks afford a propitious moment to canvass diverse senses of “pluralist” as well as to explore my insistence that dialogue properly pursues meaning rather than truth. For the two are inherently connected.
Our Muslim interlocutor, Rumee Ahmed, begins by noting how “prevalent discourse and biases surrounding interfaith dialogue and pluralism studies make it easy to misread this book.” Indeed, we can identify prevailing contemporary notions of “pluralism” as the key obstacle to a proper understanding of the study. For Ahmed perceives, after examining the work itself, that the “project is not so much to define a pluralist theology that is inherent in the thought of these medieval theologians, but to model a method by which theologies that appear to be in conflict might be placed into dialogue with one another.” This allows him to conclude that I am “not [intent on] unearthing a latent pluralism in the thought of [these] thinkers, but [rather concerned with] demonstrating how someone dedicated to both religion and pluralism might read theology in a way that accords with both their religious and pluralist commitments.” I am not sure how he is using the protean term “pluralist” here, but let me distinguish between its descriptive and normative senses. I subscribe to the first as describing the world in which we live, one in which our classical interlocutors cannot be said to have lived: side by side with and inescapably open to attempting to understand persons of diverse faith communities. Pluriform events of recent centuries, with especially salient ones of the twentieth, have released us from presuming to dominate other-believers or even to distance ourselves from them. That effectively describes the pluralist world in which we live, one to which theologians in the west are coming to adapt.
The other, normative (or I would prefer, ideological) sense of “pluralist” reflects a convenient yet misleading triad readily used by philosophers of religion to display a set of attitudes toward “other religions” on the part of believers in one. It proceeds to classify these attitudes from “on high,” as it were, as “exclusivist,” “inclusivist,” and “pluralist.” Despite the barbarisms invented to make their point, this triad easily won the rhetorical day since it can be deployed to unravel epistemological complexities in a facile way. Used in that way, the term “pluralist” connotes an attitude towards the presence of plural religious communities which tends to elide significant differences, especially conflicting truths. So while pretending to be descriptive, this use of “pluralist” effectively becomes ideological by recommending a proper attitude to take. An increasing number of us find this use, shaped by the convenient triad, to be so misleading as to block further reflection rather than facilitate it. Moreover, the initial context of the triad itself—namely, in “theology of religions”—can serve to reduce epistemological issues worthy of further consideration to attitudes to be commended or discarded. So let us set aside this loaded use of “pluralist” to explore those underlying issues.
We can begin our exploration with Ahmed's noting how I insist that we must “ ‘bracket’ the truth-question as we focus on the meaning of what [others’ convictions] assert.” He associates this strategy with my recommending that “participants should cultivate a healthy doubt about their own traditions, which will lead to greater introspection, and which in turn will lead to stronger faith,” yet “hazards that [neither] Aquinas [nor] Maimonides [nor Ghazali] would feel the same, and that their task was not to cultivate a healthy doubt in the face of the other, but to prove the primacy of their doctrines.” (I do not recall recommending a “healthy doubt” about one's own tradition, but will address Ahmed's picture of classical thinkers seeking to “prove the primacy of their doctrines”.) Yet in the end he commends the “book in that it models a method in which interfaith theological dialogue can occur across difference without requiring any of the participants to bracket the truth-question.” So we are minded of his initial animadversion, that “prevalent discourse and biases surrounding interfaith dialogue and pluralism studies make it easy to misread this book.” So let me try to free the strategy of “bracketing the truth-question” from prevalent discourse and biases, by reminding us that comparative discourse in matters religious has ever focused on meaning rather than truth, and necessarily so. Rather than a “politically correct” recommendation, this “merely expresses the very grammar of faith” (p. 181).
The argument is quite simple. Once one acknowledges that one's religious faith is rooted in a God-given revelation—however offered—then it would be fruitless to try to demonstrate that tradition to be true. One will always be tempted to show “the primacy” of one's tradition, to be sure, but such “showing” will proceed at best rhetorically, by “out-narrating” the other, as John Milbank puts it. Even then, this is an inherently risky strategy in interfaith discourse, for one is easily tempted to represent one's own tradition favorably, at the expense of equally favorable presentation of others, as the Vatican statement Dominus Jesus egregiously displays! So the best (and only “proof”) of a religious tradition will be the witness of men and women whose very lives “testify to its being more than a human fabrication” (p. 182). And inherently so, since revealed truth defies circumscription by our conceptualities, which are ever under revision, testifying to the ways such truths grasp and envelope us rather than our “comprehending” them. Indeed, properly religious discourse recognizes that its goal will ever elude its grasp, as those faithful uplifted by the language will learn to use it to grow in gratitude for the ways God's word has given them hope through progressive illumination. So as we allow the truth of a faith tradition to lure us forward by its peculiar way of grasping us, we will come to appreciate that we can never present it as a “truth-claim” of our own!
So the customary philosophical idiom involving “truth” may have to be transformed in speaking of the truth of a faith-tradition. Yet a fresh approach to the question of truth may well leave us free to enlist other traditions to assist us in expressing the truths by which each of us has been confirmed in our search for the living God, as we come to trust an “exchange [that] will help each of us better understand and appreciate our own tradition.” And as Ahmed clearly sees, this is the polar opposite of “relativism,” since each can remain convinced of the truth of their tradition while appreciating the perspective gained from attempting to understand another. So in fact, focus on meaning leaves convictions regarding the truth of one's tradition intact; yet it will require sufficient largesse of spirit to recognize that others can acknowledge and live by a different set of truths. To do this, all we need to affirm is that the revealed truth which each tradition finds itself elaborating will ever transcend those very elucidations. Yet to claim otherwise would be tantamount to idolatry: to presume to have grasped the revelation given us! So I took Prince Ghazi bin Muhammed bin Talal's response to this work—that it was difficult to tell to which faith I adhered—as a compliment. For when one attempts to render another tradition accurately enough that it can help illuminate one's way to God, then one will have succeeded in suppressing chauvinistic tendencies, without however compromising the truth by which one has been grasped. This is one more way in which living out our faith-traditions in relation to others, hoping they will enlighten our quest, can transform our understanding of truth.
Finally, if we fail to see how an argument like this “merely expresses the very grammar of faith,” might it be the case that our respective faith-traditions have been so compromised, over history, by subservience to power and the lust for power, that the potency of the traditions themselves to display the truth they embody has been effectively adulterated? That may be difficult for either Christians or Muslims to hear, but we need only reflect that “Muslim-Christian dialogue” had to wait until the demise of the Papal States and the Ottoman empire to even begin to be envisaged. For the centuries preceding, encounter could only take place on the battlefield! Moreover, each tradition must give credit to developments in society which make dialogue possible today: beyond Christendom or the classical Islamicate. The two slim documents of Vatican II, resulting from the dynamic of the council itself—Dignitatis humanae [On religious liberty] and Nostra aetate [In our time—on other religions], signaled the end of a fifteen-century collusion between faith and power which obscured the potency of these respective faiths to renew humanity according to their revelations. Whether or how that might happen in our time remains unclear, but exercises in dialogue may well be the catalyst needed to temper and harness enthusiasm for political liberation.
Yet as Pim Valkenberg perceptively delineates it, interfaith dialogue has properly intellectual goals as well aspirations for social emancipation—notably in releasing theological inquiry in each tradition from the set of aporiae (recurring issues) which tend to bedevil any field-specific investigation. And liberation of this sort will be especially needed in a mode of inquiry where the subject matter—God and all things as related to God—so exceeds the categories employed in the investigation that they can often hinder rather than expedite the inquiry itself. Hence carefully attending to parallel probings, say, of divine and human freedom, can help each tradition in its effort to elucidate an issue common to all yet quite beyond each one. Thus while the reach of comparative theology may appear to be protean, as it seeks to embrace and delineate fruitful exchange among diverse traditions, what results can be a welcome intellectual humility, nourished by the continual practice of attending to the incapacity of each tradition to realize an adequate way of parsing the riches of its revelation. For a fine example of this kind of practice, see the multiple interfaith contributions to James Heft's anthology of “learned ignorance” cited in Valkenberg's essay, the fruit of fresh exchange among Jews, Christians, and Muslims at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute in 2009. We have seen Jewish and Muslim interlocutors display how the comparative practice of theology can bring us to mutual illumination. Moreover, liberating each tradition to adopt fresh modes of inquiry, we have been able to delineate ways in which earlier proposals have already been surpassed in more recent theological inquiry. So a Christian interlocutor reminds us how the work under scrutiny may be said to have achieved its aim of stimulating Christian theology as others move us beyond it. In closing let me say that I especially relish this way of culminating a quarter-century of comparative inquiry: inviting younger persons, far better equipped to explore this relatively uncharted terrain, to lead us all into a fresh feeling for difference, and so of the mysterious ways of the one God.