IV) Interreligious Dialogue: Catherine Cornille
Although these abstract discussions about trinitarian pluralism are absolutely necessary for the overall task of responding to a religiously plural world, I think the famous words of Hans Kung serve to bring us back to the central concern expressed at the outset of this essay: “There can be no peace among the nations without peace among the religions” and “there can be no peace among the religions without dialogue between the religions.” After necessarily considering comparative religion and theology of religions, the hardest and most urgent work for our current situation begins with actual dialogue. However, with the dual convictions expressed in this essay that religions are irreducibly unique and that, at best, we can be radical inclusivists, one might wonder if interreligious dialogue is really useful – or even possible. Even with Heim’s open theology of religion, there is a need for a more thoughtful approach to dialogue.
If the goal of dialogue is just the exchange of information between different traditions, it is hard to see how any real sense of unity that is required to motivate peaceful coexistence and cooperation is possible. One might as well just read a book on religion if all one is doing in dialogue is gaining facts about the other. But our world needs more than interreligious data-swapping – it needs individual, communal, and social change and growth. Many of us are convinced that we need real encounters with the religious other to facilitate this in a pluralistic world. As such, we must ask how interreligious dialogue can be more effective by going beyond both the exchanging of data in a guarded conservativism and a nice but ultimately inconsequential gathering of liberal religious pluralists who already basically agree with themselves. As Catherine Cornille writes, “If dialogue is to include the possibility of change and growth, not only of the individuals involved, but also of the religions themselves, then certain essential conditions are to be fulfilled.”
Cornille helpfully outlines five conditions for productive and transformative interreligious dialogue that I believe are essential for the Christian response to our current situation today. The conditions include: doctrinal humility, commitment to a particular religious tradition, seeing an interconnection between oneself and the other, exercising empathy towards the other, and hospitality to the authentic truth of the other. Importantly, Cornille does not expect the religions to gain these five commitments from external, “neutral” sources. Like Heim’s work in theology of religion, she advocates for religious persons to discover and develop these conditions from a confessional standpoint so that they are seen as “an internal necessity rather than an external obligation.” In her own work, she remains committed to the central Christian sources of scripture and tradition to articulate the five conditions of humility, commitment, interconnection, empathy, and hospitality.
The first condition of doctrinal humility encourages religious persons to admit the imperfection and fallibility of all religious beliefs, even while holding to their basic convictions in the tradition. Real change is only possible if religious persons hold their beliefs in an open-handed fashion, rather than close-fisted. What resources does the tradition offer for this task? Christianity certainly condemns arrogance and pride while encouraging personal humility. Additionally, the tradition has the resources of apophatic theology and eschatological completion that encourage some level of doctrinal humility. However, Cornille admits that the Christian understanding of humility has usually been “adopted toward rather than about the truth of Christian doctrines.” Still, Cornille thinks that the Christian virtue of humility can stimulate epistemic humility. One might also argue that because Christianity is inherently a historical religion, it must necessarily engage with the modern historical consciousness that casts varying levels of doubt on traditional doctrines. One may also reclaim apophatic theology and eschatology in ways that truly encourage spiritual humility.
Even though Christians must be humble about their beliefs in dialogue, Cornille balances this destabilizing notion with a condition of commitment to a particular religious community and tradition in order to avoid total relativism, syncretism, endless religious wandering, and New Age individualism. By always returning from dialogue into a space of accountability within one’s home tradition and community, a religious person can avoid the dangers that Cornille is concerned to guard against. Commitment to the teachings and beliefs of a particular religious community also presents an opportunity to bring real transformation to the largest religions that tend to bring the most division in today’s world. Furthermore, commitment to a tradition requires some kind of interreligious apologetics from both sides if they are to really be in dialogue. Without this activity, the delicate balance of humility and conviction collapses.