Irreconsilable or Incommensurate?

At a recent inter-religious dialogue event a colleague noted how quickly, in the question and answer period, Christians moved the focus from the topic of the dialogue to the question of who is “saved” and how. Only diplomacy on the part of all the leaders kept the conversation from breaking up.

Back in the day when a divorce required a reason we would hear a couple claim that they had “irreconcilable differences.” The assumption was that marriage required some basic level of agreement, and that if differences of opinion couldn’t be reconciled then living together was impossible.

I carried out an informal study of folks who have had long marriages and realized that part of the secret was that they understood the difference between irreconcilable and incommensurate – even if they didn’t know those words.

Things that are incommensurate cannot be compared. like apples and oranges or ice hockey and antique shopping. Once you recognize that these things take place in completely different realms of social interaction and human behavior you don’t try to reconcile them. You learn to live with difference.

Doing this requires suspending any absolute claims about value – for example the value of time spent in an particular activity. The hockey fan agrees to suspend his claim that hockey watching is the most valuable way to spend time, as does the antique shopper. Each gives the other space to pursue his or her values and together they look for values they agree on. And they agree upfront not to waste time on reconciling the incommensurate.

Perhaps they even recognize that any apparent reconciliation of the incommensurate hides the imposition of power by one party over the other.

Fruitful inter-religious dialogue requires constant attention to the difference between the possibly reconcilable and the totally incommensurate if it isn’t to end in an untimely divorce.

For example, although different religions have different ideas about human nature there is a possibility that we can reach some pretty basic agreements on human nature. After all, we can share our observations of actual humans. On the other hand we cannot share our observations about the ultimate destiny of human persons. It lies in a future we can see only through revelation, and we have different and incommensurable revelations.

Practically speaking this means that a dialogue over human nature, if difficult, has the potential to reconcile our differences. It also means that a dialogue over what Christians call salvation is and will always be fruitless – like trying to cross breed apples and oranges.

And perhaps that will help us clarify the relationship between inter-religious dialogue and evangelism, for they are incommensurate, not irreconcilable. One is the effort to build a shared social space around those matters about which agreement is possible. The other is the effort to make persuasive religious claims about human destiny in relation to transcendence and eternity. Upcoming I’ll explain the relationship between these incommensurate activities.


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