Saturday, September 30, 2006

Dialogue across Religious Boundaries: Does It Exist?

There is a very thoughtful piece in National Review Online by John Cullinan, a Catholic intellectual. He is commenting on the Pope's meeting with Muslim diplomats last week in the Castel Gandolfo.

(BTW, what a totally cool name: The Castel Gandolfo! Whatever else you might think of Catholicism, it sure as Hell is OLD!!)

Anyway, at the meeting Benedict finally stopped apologizing (thank God!) and tried strengthen dialogue between the Church and Islam. Cullinan comments that there has always been a problem about Catholic/Muslim dialogue. Christians have always had (the possibility of) joint theological inquiry with Jews, who share some of the same heritage. By contrast, Muslims claim that the Quran supersedes the Christian Bible, something the Christians have never said about the Christian New Testament and the Jewish Old Testament. Furthermore, Catholics have always been a) Trinitarian and b) Jesus-centered, which Muslims interpret as a) blasphemous and b) idolatrous.

This is of course more of the we-aren't-dialoguiung-with-you-because-you-can't-talk-to-us stuff, which the Pope was throwing at the Western rationalists. You guys are the problem, not us!

Actually, I see a deeper, much more epidemic sort of problem. Suppose that you are trying to convince me of some opinion of yours, something I myself don't believe (yet). My first reaction will probably be that your evidence isn't really good enough, that it doesn't require me to change my mind. Rarely, if ever, will my reaction be that the stuff you are saying is just not evidence at all, that it is the wrong kind of thing to function as evidence. That's what I would say if you said, eg., "I know the Republicans will lose the next election because it came to me in a dream." Sheesh, what are you saying?!

The thing is, when a dialogue happens across the boundaries between religions, we have this problem all the time. The Muslim's reason will be "I know it's true because the Quran says so!" and the Christian's reason will be "... because the Bible says so!" Each does not recognize the stuff the other side is saying as constituting evidence at all: it's just not the right kind of thing to function as evidence, they think.

On the other hand, in the modern world, this is not true of dialogues between religionists on the one hand and secular rationalists on the other. Fundamentalists deny evolution, but they do not look at the evidence cited by Darwinians (the fossil record, structural similarities between many different organisms, etc.) and say "Sheesh, what are you talking about? It's as if you were citing your dreams as evidence!!" Huh-uh. They know very well that this is evidence, which they must answer somehow. On the other hand, they often do cite evidence which to the non-religionist is just not evidence at all (".. on the seventh day, He rested!").

At this point a Catholic might say: That was just the point that Benedict was making about rationalism, dummy! You guys can't possibly understand us! It's a crippling disability you have, you poor lost souls!

To which I say: Not at all! It's a disability you have as well, when you are trying to reason with Muslims, or believers in any revealed religion fundamentally different from your own. It's a problem that any such religion presents to anyone outside the religion, whether the outsider is religious or not. The problem is the religion itself!

The moral: If Benedict and the Muslims are going to have a dialogue, they can only do it by stepping outside the Christian and Muslim views of the world. Any dialogue between them will have to be carried on in the shared, common language of scientific rationalism. That is one of the beauties of the scientific view of the world, perhaps the greatest: it is meant to be shared and common. It makes mutual understanding possible! Religion, unfortunately, has a certain tendency to block it.

If you combine Benedict's notorius Regensburg speech with his comments at Castel Gandolfo, you get this message: He's giving up on dialogue with Western rationalists, they are hopless cases. He's going to pursue dialogue with the Muslims. After all, he points out, they have plenty in common, like their shared opposition to abortion. He might also have added, their shared loathing of homosexuals. I say that he has it exactly backwards. What makes dialogue possible is not shared prejudices but shared logic. He shares a logic with the rationalists and the Muslims share a logic with the rationalists. Neither religion shares a logic with each other. Each revealed religion is sealed off by its own logic in a schizoid little world of its own.

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