Response to Water from a Skull – Some time ago I wrote a review of Kevin Kim’s Water from a Skull. This consisted of a summary of the various parts of the book and my opinion about whether or not the book was worth reading (short answer: yes). I mentioned during the review that at some point I wanted to write a separate response to the book, and that time has finally come.
The book covers a broad range of topics and ideas, but I am not going to address all of them. In fact, I am only going to address one of them—the subject of interreligious dialogue and how it relates to both exclusivism and pluralism. Before I begin, I want to make it clear what I mean by “response.” It is not a critique of the book, nor is it a discussion of the author’s ideas. It is a discussion of my ideas, things that I thought about as I read the book. Water from a Skull deals with a lot of issues that are not easy to think about, but as I read I realized that I had to deal with them if I wanted to be intellectually and morally honest with myself. So what follows are my thoughts on the issues—my attempt to come to a conclusion (if only a temporary one) that I can live with. You don’t need to know what the book is about to follow today’s entry, but if you want to see what got me thinking, you can go back and read the review.
Of the five parts of Water from a Skull, it was the first part, titled “Interface,” that gave me the most food for thought. Kevin devotes a lot of page space to his thoughts and opinions on exclusivism versus pluralism, and how adherents to these mindsets approach interreligious dialogue. Before I go any further, though, I want to define these terms. Exclusivism means you believe that your particular belief system is the correct one and all others are wrong (or at least inferior). Pluralism means that you view all belief systems as equally valid. This is a simplistic explanation, of course, and there are other possibilities, but it will suit our purposes.
Like most adherents of an Abrahamic religion (Christianity, Judaism, Islam), I am exclusivistic. I believe Jesus when he says in John 14:6, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” This is a very uncompromising position, one inimical to interreligious dialogue. How can you engage in dialogue with people of other religions when you believe they are misguided, deluded, or deceived? Is it possible for an exclusivist to engage in interreligious dialogue without ulterior motives? These are hard questions, but if I am going to take an exclusivist position, I need to come to terms with them.
Let me start by backtracking a bit. I deliberately worded those questions above in a way that I imagine a pluralist might word them—I wouldn’t normally word these questions this way. Perhaps by explaining what I believe and where I am at this particular point in my life, I can provide some sort of answer to them. I apologize if what follows is not the most organized or coherent explanation, because on the one hand it is really very simple, and on the other hand it’s not.
A phrase that pops up a few times in Water from a Skull when talking about interreligious dialogue is “the willingness to be reinterpreted by the Other.” In other words, interreligious dialogue is about being willing to listen to people who don’t share my beliefs talk about what they think about my beliefs. This is a harder thing to do than it might seem at first. Of all beliefs, religious beliefs in particular tend to be the most dearly held. In fact, this is why interreligious dialogue is so important—when you have a bunch of people with conflicting views running around, and each one of them is convinced that they are right, you have a powder keg waiting to explode. All we have to do is turn on the news to see this powder keg exploding around the world every day.
If you are convinced you are right, there would seem to be little need to be reinterpreted by the Other—after all, if your truth is the Truth, why do you need to listen to what anyone else is saying? So interreligious dialogue is, on a deeper level, about admitting that you might not have all the answers, no matter how strong your convictions may be. But if you admit that, is it still tenable to hold to an exclusivist position? If there is the possibility that you are wrong, how can you maintain an exclusivist position?
After thinking long and hard about it, I have come to the conclusion that I do not know everything, and that I may be wrong in some of my beliefs. This does not mean I am abandoning my faith, though. The core elements of my faith are still intact, but I am willing to admit that of the many different interpretations of certain theological issues, mine is only one. Some of these, like what I consider the “core elements,” are matters of faith—I cannot argue them logically, but I still believe them to be true. When it comes to peripheral elements, though, I am willing to consider other views.
But if I am still holding to the core elements of my faith, then I am reserving a certain area where I believe I am right and will not entertain other notions, am I not? Indeed I am. And I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. Everyone has convictions of one form or another. The problem with convictions, though, is that when they clash they can cause conflict. I suppose it all depends on what your convictions are. If I am thoroughly convinced that green is the color of Satan, I am probably going to have a hard time in life. Likewise if I am convinced that squirrels are really capitalist spies in disguise.
But what if I am convinced that all human beings are equal, that no man or woman is lesser than any other, that all people should be allowed to live free and in the manner of their choosing? Well, then I would share these convictions with the founders of my nation, and ostensibly with everyone who calls themselves an American. There are certain convictions that we hold to be self-evident, certain rights that we consider inalienable. And these convictions, like the somewhat ridiculous ones in the above paragraph, may lead to conflict as well. Tyrants will arise and try to snatch away our freedoms—history has witnessed this time after time. If during such times of crisis we sway in our conviction, the tyrants win. But if we stand fast, fighting for what we know is right against what we know is wrong, we can preserve our freedom.
So it becomes apparent that it is not convictions in and of themselves that are at fault, but the substance of these convictions. And this is why I can no longer discuss these issues in the abstract, but must get down to what it is that I actually believe—what I consider the core elements of my faith.
I want to start with an oft-quoted passage of scripture: Paul’s definition of love in I Corinthians 13. If you haven’t read it before, it is well worth reading in full, but right now I want to focus on the final verse, verse 13: “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” This is from the New International Version translation, but if you go through the various versions at Bible Gateway (where the above link leads), you’ll see that this final sentence is almost the same in every major English translation, and even in the translations that differ (The Message and Wycliffe New Testament, for example) the meaning is basically the same.
I emphasize this last sentence because I wonder if sometimes Christians (myself included) don’t gloss over it in their readings. Sure, we know that love is the greatest of all, don’t we? After all, this is the basis of the greatest commandment and the second greatest commandment: love God and love your neighbor (Matthew 22:36-40). But have we really thought about what this means? Let’s look at the passage in Matthew (go read it if you don’t know it), specifically verse 40: “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Why are “Law” and “Prophets” capitalized? Because they refer to the books of the Old Testament—in other words, the Scriptures. Without love, the book on which we base our faith falls apart.
Let’s go back to I Corinthians 13:13. Faith, hope, and love are the core elements of Christianity: faith in God and his Word, our in hope in salvation and resurrection, and our love for God and our fellow man. But Paul doesn’t leave it at that—he says that the greatest of these three is love. Put simply, he is saying that if only one were to remain, it would be love. Faith could fall away, and hope could fall away, but love cannot be neglected. Now I don’t think that Paul is saying that as Christians we don’t need faith or hope—we do. What he is saying is that our faith and our hope need to be informed by love, otherwise they are meaningless. The moment Christianity abandons love and fosters fear, hatred, contempt, or anything else that divides men, it has stopped being true Christianity.
Anyone who has been in a relationship will know that communication is vital to maintaining love. Thus it is not only possible for a Christian to engage in genuine religious dialogue (and by “genuine” I mean respectful and open-minded), it is imperative. If we do not communicate with our neighbor, how can we say that we love him or her?
Ah, but what about Christianity’s exclusivism? What about those unshakeable principles that are not up for negotiation or reinterpretation? Am I sidestepping the issues by throwing a blanket of love over them and hoping they will go away? If you think I am, you’re looking at this the wrong way. Remember, love covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8). What does this mean? It means (among other things) that if we truly love each other, we will not be so concerned about pointing out each other’s sins.
But God is holiness, God is justice! He cannot stand sin! Well, not to sound flippant, but that’s God’s problem. What I mean by that is that it is up to God to decide what he wants to do—we do not have the power to decide for him. We have no right to judge anyone for the way they live. We have one duty, and that is to love. If you are a Christian, you have to trust God to take care of everything else. Trying to play God (i.e., judge and executioner) shows a tremendous lack of faith.
Now I am not saying that we should engage in interreligious dialogue with no firm beliefs. The fact of the matter is that everyone, not just adherents of exclusivist religions, have fundamental principles they are not willing to give up—even if it is the belief that they have nothing which they are not willing to give up! Communication is still possible between parties who do not fully agree. We can hold to our fundamental principles and still be willing to admit that we might not always be right about the details. And when we clash over those fundamental principles? Then our actions must be determined by love, not hate or ignorance. When it becomes apparent that we do not share the same views and neither party is likely to budge on an issue, then the loving (and wise) thing to do is to demonstrate respect for the other person and his or her beliefs. You may not agree, but you can still love and respect them.
This is my ideal. I am not there yet, not by a long stretch, but it is what I strive for. I believe that God helps me as I strive toward this goal. You may believe differently. You may believe that there is no God at all. That’s OK. Yes, it is a fundamental difference, but it doesn’t have to lead to hate and fear. If our foundation is strong, differences can just as easily lead to real dialogue and a deeper understanding of others.
So that’s my answer to the questions inspired by Water from a Skull: yes, I do believe that exclusivists can engage in interreligious dialogue. This is not the final word, of course, and much more could be said, but I think I’ll stop here for today.