For over a decade, I have used interfaith exchanges as opportunities to introduce the concept of mutual respect and why it is superior to the patronizing notion of “tolerance” that is typically celebrated at such events. BEING DIFFERENT (Harpercollins, 2011), is entirely about appreciating how traditions differ from one another rather than seeing them as the same. In parallel with these works, I have been in conversations and debates with numerous thinkers of traditions other than my own.
One such dialogue has been with Father Francis Clooney, a noted Jesuit theologian and a leading professor of Religion at Harvard. Clooney not only took a good deal of time to read through my entire manuscript and write to me many useful comments, he and I have responded to each other’s public talks over the years and argued online. There have been agreements and disagreements, but with mutual respect. I wish to reflect on how this experience relates to my overall approach to interfaith dialogues.
Chapter 1 of my book cites numerous examples to show that most religious leaders feel more comfortable publicly taking the position that various traditions are the same as each other (even though in private teachings to their followers they emphasize their own side’s distinct advantages). I coined the term “difference anxiety” to refer to the anxiety that one is different from the other – be it in gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, religion or whatever else. The opposite of difference anxiety is difference with mutual respect, the posture I advocate for dialogue.
This is not merely a shift in public rhetoric, but requires cultivating comfort with the infinitude of differences built into the fabric of the cosmos. The rest of my book explains several philosophical foundations of the differences between the dharmic traditions (an umbrella term for Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism) and the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam).
There are multiple audiences I wish to debate using this book, including those Hindu gurus who preach that all religions are the same, and many westerners who adopt an assortment of eastern spiritual practices in combination with their own Judeo-Christian identities and who blur differences or wish them away. I also respond to complaints that the acknowledgment of differences will lead to mutual tensions rather than mutual respect.
In response to my recent talk at University of Massachusetts (Dartmouth), Francis Clooney made some interesting observations in agreement with my approach to difference. See the video below of my talk.
What particularly struck me from his talk and our subsequent conversation was his observation that most of his readings of prior Hindus have shown them to be either dismissive of Christian theology’s positions, or trivializing of the important Hindu/Christian differences, or reducing the differences to modern politics, rather than uncovering the deep structures from which the differences emanate. He also accepts my book’s emphasis that many Sanskrit terms cannot be simply translated into western equivalents.
We also disagreed on several points: For instance, Clooney views inculturation by evangelists as a positive posture of Christian friendship towards Indian native culture by adopting Indian symbols and words, whereas I find it to be often used as a mean to lure unsuspecting Indians into Christianity by making the differences seem irrelevant.
The significance of such an approach to dialogues is not dependent upon whether both sides agree or disagree on a given issue. In fact, I do not consider it viable to reconcile the important philosophical differences without compromise to one side or the other. Rather, the significance here is that we are comfortable accepting these differences as a starting point – which is more honest than the typical proclamations at such encounters where differences are taboo to bring up.
This approach to difference opens the door for any given faith to reverse the gaze upon the other in dialogue. Given the west’s immense power over others in recent centuries, the framing of world religions’ discourse, including the terminology, categories and hermeneutics, has been done using western religious criteria combined with subsequent western Enlightenment theories. In my book, I refer to this as Western Universalism and feel that this artificial view of non-western faiths has been assumed as the “standard” space in which all traditions must see themselves – leading to difference anxieties, and hence to the pressure to pretend sameness.
My hope is to hold more such dialogues with experts from as many other traditions as I can, and be able to freely share both areas of agreement and disagreement without pressure or guilt.
Hindu cosmology has naturally led me to this comfort with difference: The entire cosmos and every minutest entity in it is nothing apart from the One, i.e. there is radical immanence of divinity such that nothing is left out as “profane.” Hence, unity is guaranteed by the very nature of reality, eliminating the anxiety over difference at the very foundations. In fact, the word “lila” represents the profound notion that all these differences are forms of the One, and that all existence is nothing apart from divine play, the dance of Shiva.