Divine Mandate, Dialogue Disaster?

How do we enter into respectful dialogue with another religious viewpoint when that religious viewpoint won’t let us speak for ourselves? When it insists that it comprehensively understands our reality without reference to us?

What do I mean? Let’s start with something interesting:

“After the banned ‘Holy Islamic Sex’ (Seks Suci Islam) guide’s sizzling debut, the Obedient Wives’ Club (OWC) has launched another publication for Muslims titled ‘The Holy Spirit and Holy Islamic Sex Booklet’ (Risalah Roh Suci dan Seks Suci Islam). At a press conference in Rawang yesterday, OWC spokesperson Fauziah Ariffin (left) said that the 24-page book is not only for club members but also for the general public. She explained that the booklet stressed the need for a wife to be loyal and obedient to her husband, as it is a tenet of faith and mandated by God. “It describes in all frankness how God asks all women to be good wives. It is not what the husband wants but what God asks. That is what will satisfy husbands and prevent them from straying to vices,” Fauziah said.” ( Reported by Ahmad Fadli KC, 9:33AM Jul 6, 2012)

What! Suddenly I’m back in 1974, the year I graduated from high school . . . “The Total Woman sold more than ten million copies and was the bestselling nonfiction book of 1974.Grounded in evangelical Christianity, it taught that ‘A Total Woman caters to her man’s special quirks, whether it be in salads, sex or sports,’ and is perhaps best remembered for instructing wives to greet their husbands at the front door wearing sexy outfits, or draped in transparent, with nothing (but herself) underneath. ‘It’s only when a woman surrenders her life to her husband, reveres and worships him and is willing to serve him, that she becomes really beautiful to him,’ Morgan wrote. (Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marabel_Morgan)

One can find similar structuring of relationships between men and women in orthodox Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and other religions and cultures. Feminists will point out, accurately, that we have here clear examples of a hierarchical and patriarchal understanding of human relationships. But that isn’t the heart of the problem.

“Mandated by God” is the real take away here. Marabel Morgan and the OWC both believe that the structures of human relationships are mandated by God. We don’t define who we are for each other as men and women, God does.

In Islam this also means that humans more generally can be divided into Muslims, people of the book, and polytheists (as well as in other ways detailed in Islamic law.) Christians see a divine distinction between Christians, Jews, heretics, and idol worshippers, or sometimes more simply between saved and damned, saint and sinner. Most Hindus who are quite ready to recognize a variety of equal religious paths still divided their world into divinely appointed castes, not to mention a patriarchy equal to that of the OWC.

Just as inter-religious dialogue is undermined by hegemonic claims to the single location from which the truth may be known, it is equally undermined by the idea that divine mandate tells us who others are religiously without them speaking for themselves. There is no point in dialogue if we already know what we need to know about someone of a different religion.

Fruitful dialogue begins when the participants define themselves. And fruitful relationships are built on the shared understanding of the relationship that follows. But note – this is a religious conviction on my part. I don’t believe that God mandates who we are for one another religiously. I believe that God wants us to discover than in the process of human dialogue. Therefore I offer my conviction about dialogue up for discussion. Can we find a common mind on how we know who we are for one another? Or is that up to God?

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