The risks and rewards of interreligious dialogue, with Catherine Cornille
BLAIR HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Blair Hodges.
Many religious believers live their entire lives without learning much about other people’s faith. Maybe some people avoid interreligious dialogue because they think they already know their religion is true. Maybe some people fear that such exchanges might somehow change them, and they don’t want to change.
In this episode we’re joined by Catherine Cornille, a Catholic theologian at Boston College and an enthusiastic supporter of interreligious dialogue. We’re talking about her book, The Im-possibility of Interreligious Dialogue.
If you’ve ever wanted to know how to improve your conversations with people of different faiths—or even with people within your own faith who see things differently—this episode is for you. Cornille identifies some of the behaviors we can cultivate when talking to people who see things differently. She says interreligious dialogue can teach us so much about other religions, but also so much about our own faith.
Special thanks are due to our friends at Brigham Young University’s Wheatley Institution, who invited Dr. Cornille to deliver last year’s Truman G. Madsen Lecture on the Eternal Man. A link to that lecture is available here and on our blog.
Questions and comments about this and other episodes of the Maxwell Institute Podcast can be sent to me at email@example.com.
BLAIR HODGES: Catherine Cornille joins us. She’s the author of The Im-possibility of Interreligious Dialogue. Is it okay if I call you Catherine?
CATHERINE CORNILLE: Of course.
HODGES: Okay, Catherine, thank you for being on the Maxwell Institute Podcast today.
CORNILLE: You’re welcome.
HODGES: How did you first became interested in interreligious dialogue?
CORNILLE: I studied theology at the Catholic University of Louvain and had a few courses in non-Christian religions. At the time I was quite fascinated, especially by Asian religions and wanted to learn more about those traditions, and realized that there was very little that religions communicated explicitly between one another. So from that time on I realized that there were a number of things I had been learning from Hinduism and Buddhism that could enrich the Christian tradition and Christian faith. So that’s really the beginning of how I became interested in questions of interreligious dialogue.
HODGES: Do you come from a religious background yourself?
CORNILLE: I do. I grew up Catholic. I’m a Catholic theologian. And I think in particular the fact of continuing to identify with a particular tradition while opening oneself up to others and all of the questions and problems that that brings with it is really what I’ve been fascinated with for a very long time.
DEFINING INTERRELIGIOUS DIALOGUE
HODGES: What’s your most basic definition of interreligious dialogue?
CORNILLE: I use a rather broad definition of interreligious dialogue as any form of constructive engagement between members of different religious traditions.
So interreligious dialogue can just be sort of friendly exchange between people from different religions. It can be collaboration between members of different religions on social projects. Or it can be theological engagement between religious traditions, or what we call comparative theology.
So I use the term interreligious dialogue in this kind of broad umbrella sense of any constructive engagement between religions.
HODGES: I guess the people involved are usually dependent on what the particular tradition looks like, right? So what type of people—who’s actually doing interreligious dialogue?
CORNILLE: Yes, so if the definition is so broad, interreligious dialogue goes on implicitly or explicitly maybe on a daily basis between people who don’t even think of what they’re doing as interreligious dialogue. But then as a scholar I look at what is happening in society where societies are becoming much more pluralistic and people willingly or unwillingly have to live together and find a way to coexist. So that very peaceful coexistence and attempts to overcome tension and so on are all forms of interreligious dialogue.
HODGES: From a Catholic tradition—women in the Catholic Church aren’t ordained, so you’re coming to this as a woman theologian but not a clergy member. What contexts then can you engage in? Who do you talk to, and do you represent the Catholic Church, or just a theologian’s perspective when you do it?
CORNILLE: Well, I try to represent the tradition, to call it “the church” per se is maybe too narrow, but I try to engage people from other religious traditions theologically from within the theological background of my own tradition. So I’m not an official representative of the Catholic Church in dialogues with others. But that’s only a very sort of narrow form of dialogue, I would say, where church leaders engage in sort of photo ops together where they—
HODGES: Shake hands.
CORNILLE: Yeah, they show their good will to each other, and that’s very important I think, but it’s not sort of the dialogue that also changes traditions and changes people’s hearts.
It does, maybe, just to see your leaders speaking with each other and collaborating is important, but I’m looking for a deeper kind of dialogue where, theologically, traditions can possibly learn things from each other. So that’s where my engagement in interreligious dialogue comes in. It’s really more of an in-depth theological study of another tradition to see what one can possibly learn from that tradition, and maybe also offer to the other tradition.
MOTIVATION FOR “INTERRELIGIOUS DIALOGUE”
HODGES: What do you think motivates the sort of “photo op” type of interreligious dialogue? Maybe we could put scare quotes around “interreligious dialogue” for those type of opportunities, that you say also have some benefits as well. What do you think motivates those kind of surface level opportunities?
CORNILLE: Well I think religious leaders are very well aware, also, of the fact that religion has been sort of a force for good, but also for evil in terms of the tensions that have existed historically between religious traditions. So for them to show a kind of friendship or collaboration, I think, is important for their members also to realize that one doesn’t have to approach the other as the enemy or have sort of feelings of fear for people from other religious traditions. So all of those elements are very important.
Within the Catholic tradition, Pope John Paul II was very instrumental when he organized Days of Peace in Assisi, bringing together major leaders of the religious traditions to pray together for peace.
I think all of those events are important, but in some ways short lived. They happen and then people go back to their own traditional ways, and what we are trying to do theologically is something a little bit more sustained and enduring, hopefully.
HODGES: What’s an example of maybe the most astonishing example of one of those surface level interreligious engagements that you can remember in your lifetime? Is there one that sticks out to you as “wow, I never thought these people from these traditions would come together like this”?
CORNILLE: Yeah. I don’t know if there was anything particularly astonishing.
I do remember, actually, once I responded to a panel where leaders and thinkers of the Mormon church and Evangelical church came together at the American Academy of Religion and I was responding to the dialogue that went on between those two groups. I found that really fascinating. As a result of that I also included that dialogue in my Blackwell Companion to Inter-Religious Dialogue.
I think many of the other dialogues have sort of grown slowly, and this is, I think, a dialogue that’s really quite new and visceral and passionate in the sense of both traditions having very strong convictions and yet being able to speak to one another.
HODGES: You mentioned the book that you edited, the Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Inter-Religious Dialogue. I haven’t reviewed that before the interview, but I wonder, does it kind of cover the general type of issues that are usually addressed in interreligious dialogue? What does that book do?
CORNILLE: There are two parts to the book. The first part are critical topics in interreligious dialogues, so general issues, the history of interreligious dialogue, conditions for dialogue, women and dialogue, spiritual dialogue, and so forth.
The second part of the book are concrete cases of dialogue. So I tried there to cover a wide swath of dialogues between Confucianism and Islam, between Hinduism and Judaism—so all kinds of different cases of the history of dialogue between particular religions.
HERMENEUTICS, OR INTERPRETATION
HODGES: In the book The Im-Possibility of Interreligious Dialogue, and that’s spelled I-M with a dash between “possibility,” the “im-possibility” of interreligious dialogue, you talk about kind of broad general issues that usually get addressed. You break them down into spiritual practice, doctrine, and ethics. Talk about that categorization for a moment.
CORNILLE: Yes. So those are different foci of interreligious dialogue, and what I tried to make clear is that each type of dialogue has a different set of conditions, and that the conditions I develop in the book mostly have to do with more theological dialogue.
HODGES: The book is laying out these five essential conditions that make interreligious dialogue worthwhile, or some of the benefits, or that make it work I guess. It’s almost the oil in the engine that kind of helps it run.
Before we dig into those individually, you also offer an important caveat here. You say that religious believers, they have to find their deepest motivations for doing interreligious dialogue within their own traditions. You’re very clear on saying you can’t try to convince someone to participate in interreligious dialogue using reasons that their tradition doesn’t already value.
CORNILLE: Yeah. So because dialogue has become such a fashionable word and attitude in the encounter of religions today, I think it’s important to think critically about dialogue and to realize in the first place that religions are not naturally inclined or oriented to dialogue. So dialogue isn’t, in some ways, somewhat artificial. Each religion believes itself to be the highest truth, the ultimate truth, sometimes even the only truth.
So unless believers can find the motivation and the reason for dialogue within their own texts or within the interpretation of their own texts, dialogue will never have any result of any significance. So that’s why I emphasize the need for every religion to find within it themselves a reason for dialogue. Those reasons are not necessarily given, as I say, religions are not necessarily by nature oriented to dialogue. So it’s all a matter of interpretation of the tradition that allows people to open themselves up to other religious traditions. So in that sense, hermeneutics or interpretation of their own texts and traditions are essential.
HODGES: Yeah, “hermeneutics” is a word that you bring up early on. You define it for the reader. It’s basically a fancy word for interpretation. You say that this is a really crucial tool that people can use when talking with other people from other religious traditions, but also to think about their own religious traditions. It seems to be a reminder to people that their own religion is something they have received, but also something that they interpret and that they can interact with creatively, almost.
Would you say creativity is an important part of hermeneutics?
CORNILLE: Yeah. I would say so. I think it’s a matter of always understanding the text from a particular place, and interpreting it always in light of particular circumstances.
Hermeneutics is based on the idea that there is no one fixed meaning to the text that is unchanging. That the meaning of a text is always a matter of a dialogue between the text and the reader, and that in that sense the reader also always gives meaning to a particular text.
If we look at the history of religions, religious texts tend to be themselves so diverse and so rich internally, often it’s a matter of which passages does one focus on? Which passages does one select for guidance and so forth?
So the hermeneutics I have in mind is also trying to find within the texts, or within the tradition, sources that might open up the tradition to others rather than close them up.
HODGES: Every reader comes to a text from their own position and interprets it. You talk about how the texts don’t necessarily have this self-manifesting meaning once for all time. They’re always interpreted. So what restrains hermeneutics then? Some people raise the objection of relativism. Well, texts can mean anything then.
CORNILLE: I think if you engage in hermeneutics from within a particular religious tradition, that tradition itself is what constrains the possibility of interpretation. So, in theology there are certain limits to orthodoxy, certain limits to interpretation that are often not necessarily given in the text themselves, but determined in conversation among interpreters, among people engaged in constructive engagement with the text.
So I think it’s a matter of trial and error often, where you try some or you explore certain possibilities, and then the tradition itself decides whether it is within the bounds of orthodoxy or not. Some traditions have more clear sort of boundaries and authority structures that decide on what is and what isn’t orthodox, and other traditions are somewhat more loosely defined. But it’s always a matter of, I would say, conversation among those who are trying to remain faithful to the text and trying to adapt it to contemporary realities and circumstances.
HODGES: Within Catholicism in particular is there a sense in which revelation plays a role there? Like where the community of interpreters, it’s not necessarily democratic, right? You don’t have all Catholics and all Catholic leaders lined up and then vote on what they want to happen, per se. There’s also a sense in which interpretation could be restrained by the idea of the spirit working with the tradition. Is that accurate about Catholicism?
CORNILLE: Yeah. There’s certainly sort of a sense of historical development of doctrine, and that’s connected to the idea of the continuing presence of the Spirit in the world. In the Catholic tradition there’s also what’s called a sensus fidelium, where the community of believers in their consensus of the meaning of particular text or how to apply it or not to contemporary circumstance has a voice in the process of interpretation.
But ultimately it’s the magisterium of the Catholic Church that decides whether some theological proposal fits within its own self-understanding or not. So there’s a very clear authority structure that can investigate and condemn certain theologians for saying things that are not within the bounds of orthodoxy.
FIRST CONDITION FOR CONSTRUCTIVE DIALOGUE—DOCTRINAL HUMILITY
HODGES: That’s Catherine Cornille. She’s the author of The Im-Possiblility of Interreligious Dialogue. So let’s dig into the five essential conditions here. First of all, how did you arrive at just five?
CORNILLE: Well I was trying to think of—I’m trained phenomenologically, so I’m always looking at what the essential elements are that go into a particular reality or phenomenon. What cannot be left out for constructive dialogue to occur? So I played with a number of conditions for a while, leaving some out, adding some, and then trying to figure out what is necessary. What is essential for constructive dialogues between religions? And those are the five conditions I came up with.
Others can of course contest it and add some conditions. You can say political circumstances are important variables, but those are not necessarily the conditions that come from within the tradition or from within the attitude of people engaging in dialogue with each other, so those are the types of conditions I was really looking for.
HODGES: The first condition we’ll talk about here is doctrinal or epistemic humility. So here’s something you write in the book, you say, “The impulse to dialogue arises from the desire to learn.” You say the desire to learn presupposes humility. So this is your first pre-condition.
CORNILLE: So doctrinal humility has to do indeed with the recognition that there is more to learn about ultimate reality and the ultimate truth, that any particular religion doesn’t have the fulness of the understanding of truth. That doesn’t mean that the tradition therefore relativizes its own revelation, but that the understanding of the revelation may not be complete, and that therefore ways in which other religions might have understood the truth about God might shed new light on one’s own tradition.
So there has to be some kind of dynamic orientation towards the ultimate fulfillment of the truth, whether it’s at the end of time or not, but a recognition that one’s own truth can still be sharpened, improved, enhanced. And that’s, I think, a first condition for the possibility of learning from another religious tradition.
HODGES: It’s interesting the way you explicitly point out that this humility cuts in two directions. It’s humility, not just about one’s own tradition, but also about not knowing much about another tradition as well. There’s humility that runs in different directions here.
CORNILLE: Right. But the humility about not knowing about another tradition is fairly straightforward.
HODGES: I think it’s more common too.
CORNILLE: Yeah, everyone knows that they don’t know everything about other religious traditions. So it’s a quite obvious factual reality. The kind of theological humility is much more challenging insofar as what I pointed out before, every religion believes itself to have the ultimate truth.
So how do you maintain that commitment to the ultimacy of the truth of one’s own tradition while recognizing that you may learn more—at least about the understanding of that truth? That’s much more challenging than the plain fact that we don’t know everything about other religions.
HODGES: Since you’re writing from within a Catholic, Christian tradition in particular, and you say that motivations need to come from within one’s own faith, what powers humility from your standpoint then? What are you drawing on to say “hey, within our tradition this is a characteristic and a quality that we are religiously motivated to sustain.”
CORNILLE: In the Catholic tradition, or in the Christian tradition in general, and in fact in most religious traditions, there’s a kind of understanding of the radical transcendence of God. So God is so beyond our powers of knowing and understanding, so beyond our grasp, that God is always greater than our human faculties, our human capacities for understanding. So what we call in the Catholic tradition a kind of apophasis, or understanding of God as being always beyond categories of knowing, is one way of recognizing or admitting that we don’t know everything about God.
Another area that allows for that kind of humility in the Christian tradition in general is what we call the eschatological orientation of Christianity. There’s this sense that the fulfillment of truth will only occur at the end of time and every historical understanding is temporal, partial, historical. So there’s always this dynamic orientation towards that fulfillment of truth that allows for us to learn.
HODGES: Yeah, and there are interesting scriptures that you can draw on. Obviously the book of Revelation talks about the end time, but even things like when Paul in First Corinthians is talking about “we prophesy in part, we do all these things in part but there’s going to come this time… right now we see through a glass darkly, or we look in an obscure mirror, but in the future…”
So even Paul who is a witness of Christ apostle, one of the most fundamental figures in Christianity is saying actually, I don’t know everything here.
HODGES: What about other traditions, say Buddhism for example? What would be an example, or Hinduism or something, where within their tradition someone might draw on this to say that they should be humble.
CORNILLE: Well, Buddhism is a religion par excellence in fact that sort of emphasizes the historicity, the partiality, of all conventional knowledge. So they make very sharp distinctions between ultimate truth and conventional truth. It’s not that conventional truth is invalid, but it is conventional. It’s part of historical language and so forth. So Buddhism more than most other traditions recognizes the relativity, which doesn’t mean relativism, but the relativity of all human religious language.
HODGES: What would you say the difference is between relativity and the relativism?
CORNILLE: Well, relativity points to the fact that all human knowledge is imperfect, unqualified by language, history, and so forth.
HODGES: And your own personal upbringing—
CORNILLE: Yeah. Relativism is that it’s reducible to human understanding and knowledge. So relativism is fundamental I think to all religious understanding if you believe that all religion is a projection or based on historical and social circumstances, then the transcendence of religion falls to the wayside.
So relativism, I think, is irreconcilable with religious understanding. Relativity, or the humility to recognize that your understanding of the truth is related to language and history and so forth, is a positive and natural way of understanding.
HODGES: It’s striking to me that you point out that some of these conditions that you lay out in the book are going to come more naturally to certain religious traditions or backgrounds than others.
CORNILLE: I do think that some conditions are more emphasized in some traditions than in others. I also don’t present these conditions as necessarily what every religious tradition has to obey. They’re more sort of heuristic conditions that can also allow religions to understand why they may not be interested in dialogue.
So I gave the example of Buddhism being very apophatic or emphasizing the relativity of their understanding of the truth. On the other hand, Buddhism does not have the kind of eschatological orientation towards the fulfillment of truth. So that kind of understanding of the relativity of truth is all there is. And that can also impede interests in other religions. If all religions only have sort of partial truth, and the ultimate truth will never be discovered, then there’s also less motivation for entering into dialogue.
HODGES: Yeah, and the more you get involved in interreligious dialogue the more you see how complicated it can be. People’s motivations, and why they want to do it, and what they bring to the table, what they want to talk about.
That leads us into the next condition, which is a commitment to a particular religious identity. This is a really interesting one to me because we live in a time when religious “nones,” spiritual people, they say “I’m spiritual, but not religious,” people that aren’t connected to set religious traditions, these types of people are on the rise.
So your second principle of commitment seems to suggest that nones might actually have some difficulty with interreligious dialogue. I would expect it to be a different way, that they might be more open to learn about other traditions or something like that. But if they don’t come from a rooted position it might be more difficult to engage. Talk about that dynamic a little bit.
CORNILLE: I think there’s a difference between that kind of engagement with different religious traditions from a non-committed or an individual perspective, and the kind of commitment that I talk about to a particular religion that allows for interreligious dialogue. So you can have a kind of personal interest in different religious traditions without concern with advancing or belonging to a particular religious tradition, and there all religions are equally true and one can pick and choose from different religions according to one’s own taste and judgment.
But that’s not interreligious dialogue. That’s being spiritual but not religious because they explicitly denounce any sense of belonging to any particular religious tradition. So that’s where I make the distinction—without necessarily judging that kind of attitude, but that’s not what I understand interreligious dialogue to be.
HODGES: That really helps clarify the difference between interest in other religions and interreligious dialogue. This second condition of commitment to a particular religious identity is required because that’s what interreligious dialogue is about, it’s comparing and contrasting learning. Even disagreeing as well. It’s not just the idea of getting everybody to think the same things.
CORNILLE: Of course, yeah.
HODGES: So what other benefits does this kind of commitment to a particular religious identity bring to interreligious dialogue?
CORNILLE: I would say it allows the dialogue to go beyond one’s own positioning in the world. So that kind of dialogue is not just for oneself, but it is a dialogue that one conducts in service of a larger tradition. So that kind of dialogue ultimately, hopefully, allows for the tradition itself to learn and to sometimes also grow from what is taken from another religious tradition. So it allows for the dialogue to bear fruit, not just for oneself but for the larger tradition.
It also allows for the dialogue to be based not just on my own taste, but on something that has been given—a revelation, a divine truth that is given, and therefore allows me to be more discerning in the dialogue of what might be true and false. I think the temptation with a kind of “being spiritual but not religious” is one just picks from other religions or from religions, whatever suits my taste, but how true or how religious is that ultimately? There’s not really any sense of surrender to a reality that is given, or a truth that is given to us. It’s all my truth. To me that sort of is, there’s a fundamental tension with what religion is about.
HODGES: Especially for example Islam, right? Islam, meaning “surrender.” It would seem really contrary to the spirit of Islam, for example.
CORNILLE: Right. I don’t think there are too many “spiritual but not religious” that come out of the Muslim faith.
HODGES: Yeah, even the shape of a particular tradition can help determine people who leave that faith, some of the perspectives they have. They usually carry aspects of the past with them in really interesting ways.
Now, interreligious exchange can raise questions that a person hasn’t thought of before. That can be kind of scary. So while a person brings their commitment into the exchange, they also kind of put that commitment on the line a little bit. This is a condition that can come under threat in the exchange.
CORNILLE: It can. Some scholars would go so far as to say that for a true dialogue to take place one has to be able to be willing to sacrifice everything in the dialogue, and give oneself just completely to where the dialogue takes the partners in dialogue. I find that in some ways an unrealistic condition for dialogue, if one belongs to a particular religious tradition, psychologically, one cannot imagine ever giving that up.
Now it may happen. Obviously people do convert from one religion to the next, but to set that as a condition, the willingness to give up one’s own convictions if that is where the dialogue takes one, I think is just too tall an order and not necessary for a constructive dialogue to take place.
HODGES: So you’d say it’s something that people can do interreligious dialogue with, but it wouldn’t be an essential or necessary position for someone to do it with.
CORNILLE: Right. Not a necessary condition.
HODGES: Hmm. But the other side of that coin would be that commitment can border on missionary-mindedness. That you come into the dialogue hoping to change the other person. What about that possibility?
CORNILLE: I would say that is what dialogue is about. I regard dialogue as sort of mutual witnessing to the truth of one’s own tradition. So it’s not just exchanging facts, but mutual witnessing to the content and the ultimacy of what one believes. Otherwise, you can take a book off the shelf and read about another religious tradition, whereas in dialogue both parties attempt to convince the other of the truth of their own tradition. And that is what I think gives dialogue its dynamism.
Also, therefore, I wouldn’t distinguish dialogue too sharply from mission. I think mission is most effective if it’s done in a mode of listening and communicating. Dialogue also gains sort of momentum and energy when both parties are trying to listen and convey something important to each other. So therefore I wouldn’t distinguish them so sharply.
HODGES: Hmm. Interesting. It seems like that sort of missionary-mindedness within a religious dialogue, you would want to know more about what the other person believes, if not for anything else than to at least establish common ground, or to find a place to begin to see where you can agree on some things in addition to where you can disagree on some things.
That leads into your very next condition, which is interconnection; this is the third condition. It’s the belief that ones own beliefs or practices are relatable or comparable in some way to a different tradition’s. But you say that this idea—that your own faith could interconnect with someone else’s faith—is usually far from evident to people. Why do you think that is?
CORNILLE: I think to people in general it might be more evident than to the scholarly world today. So in scholarship about religious studies in general there’s sort of a suspicion of even the use of the term religion as an overarching category that it sort of imposes a kind of similarity that’s not necessarily there and that every tradition is fundamentally different so that even the term religion might not be applicable.
HODGES: Yeah, and the way that even the term “religion” was sort of invented in this scholarly community, or reinvented at the turn of the century, there’s history to it. And there can be a colonizing effect where “I’m going to call this thing that you have religion, and then I’m going to treat it like that, even though that might not necessarily fit what you’re doing.”
CORNILLE: Right. So there’s a whole debate about the suitability of the use of the term “religion” that I tackle there. I think most people do have a sort of intuition that religions do have something in common with each other. People won’t name that, but there is something they’re all searching for or they’re all hoping for. So either in the motivation for being religious or else in the experience of religion that there is something that religions share with one another.
In my emphasis on interconnection the issue is that it’s only if you believe that other religions as religions have something that connects them with what you are after that you’ll be interested in dialogue with other religions, otherwise you can enter into dialogue with sciences or any other area. But what is it about other religions and the common search that might make them particularly interesting dialogue partners? It’s only if you believe that you’re searching for something that’s relatable that the dialogue will happen.
Now where that aspect of connection comes from, you can see that element of connection either in common external challenges—all religions are looking for world peace, or the end of violence, or the end of hunger, or so on. So—
HODGES: Or they’re afraid of like the rise of secularism or something—
CORNILLE: Secularization, yes. Exactly. So those kinds of common external challenges can bring religions together. You can also find a sort of common ground in a belief that all religions come out of the same experience, or are oriented towards a same experience. A good number of scholars in the beginning of the twentieth century were really fascinated with the universality of religious experiences—
HODGES: Like Houston Smith and William James, and people like that.
CORNILLE: Yeah. Vivekananda Swami, Aldous Huxley, and so forth. So that can be a ground for engaging other religious traditions.
The point I’m trying to make is that each religion has to find also, in addition to that, a point of interconnection that comes out of their own theological thinking. So the example I give is in the Christian tradition the idea that the revelation of God continues in history and that God’s spirit can be at work in other religious traditions. So if that is part of Christian belief, then it’s not only possible but necessary, I would say, to engage other religious traditions, if you really believe that God’s spirit may be at work in those religions to see how that occurs and what we can learn from that.
HODGES: That’s Catherine Cornille. She’s the author of The Im-Possibility of Interreligious Dialogue, and she recently presented the 2018 Truman G. Madsen Lecture on the Eternal Man here at Brigham Young University, sponsored by the Wheatley Institution, who brought Catherine Cornille here to BYU. She’s also done a lot of other things. She’s the founding and editing manager of a book series, “Christian Commentaries on Non-Christian Sacred Texts,” and from 2008 to 2015 she also edited volumes on critical issues in interreligious dialogue. So a lot of publications on this topic.
Let’s talk about the next condition here, number four, which is intellectual and experiential empathy. This is the main theme of the lecture that you gave through the Wheatley Institution. You say that empathy is one of the most basic requirements of all. Why is that?
CORNILLE: Well interreligious dialogue is, as I said just before, a matter of exchanging not only the content of what one believes, but also one’s own deep experience and faith. So in understanding people from other religious traditions, the process of understanding has to do not only with knowing particular facts about the other religion, but also trying to enter into their experiential world and grasping the meaning, the existential meaning of particular elements of faith and how those beliefs and practices affect people’s way of being and life in general.
So it’s an aspect of interreligious understanding that has come to be neglected a bit in the study of religion, at least because of the fact that it’s such a difficult capacity to get a hold of. Empathy is more often compared to an art rather than a science, and it’s very difficult to control or to direct.
HODGES: It’s emotional.
CORNILLE: And it’s affective, yeah. It’s emotional. But religion is about emotions. Religion is about that affective dimension of life. So to understand the other we have to at least try to understand the affective dimension of their beliefs. So that’s where the aspect of empathy comes in.
My argument in that chapter is not so much that perfect empathy is possible, but that it’s only in trying to understand the other, enter into their religious experience, that one gains something extra or more from the dialogue.
It’s only if one is able to resonate in some way with what one understands intellectually about another religion that one might move from understanding to also trying to learn from the other religious tradition. If there’s something that one resonates with in the other tradition that one feels might be lacking in one’s own religious tradition, then one will move further and try to incorporate those elements possibly within ones own religious tradition.
HODGES: In the book’s chapter on empathy you have a really specific definition here that I wanted to read as well. It says, “Empathy consists of a transposition into the religious life of the other by identifying with the world view, the belief system, and the ritual practices of the other, in order to resonate with the spiritual impact of particular teachings on the life of a believer.”
You’re almost inviting people then to imaginatively become the person that they’re talking to and what it would be like to be in that tradition and have that belief and do those practices.
CORNILLE: Exactly. So that’s I think an important dimension of dialogue. Again, one that is difficult to control, and difficult to achieve. But I think in just stretching oneself and trying to enter into the life world of the other, one gains very important information or experience that is, I think, constitutive of genuine dialogue.
HODGES: Have you had any negative experiences trying to do that as you’ve dialogued with people from different traditions? Has it ever been a painful experience or a—
CORNILLE: Well I think by “negative” I would understand that I was just unable to enter into their life world and understand affectively what the impact is of particular rituals or beliefs on their life. So that is also what I spoke about in the lecture, namely, limits of interreligious empathy. I think there are all kinds of factors that may contribute to empathy but that can also inhibit empathic resonance with the other.
And I can give all kinds of examples of things that I’ve—
HODGES: Yes, let’s hear one.
CORNILLE: For example, I’ve been studying Hinduism for a very long time. In Hinduism there’s a very strong belief that the spirit of the god, or that the god, him or herself, is fully present in the image.
HODGES: Like in a little statue?
CORNILLE: In a statue. And so the statue is fed and put to bed and clothed and taken on a walk or pilgrimage around the temple.
HODGES: It’s housed in a temple for it, and that is where the god actually is.
CORNILLE: That’s right. So there’s a kind of ecstasy also in believers when they suddenly see the god. So if the god is taken on a walk around the temple in a procession for example, you hear people screaming and dancing when they see the god because it’s such an overwhelming experience for them.
So I’ve been studying Hinduism for thirty years, but that is an experience that I have never been able to resonate with myself. I think it’s very telling also that I’m not able to resonate with that experience because one of the essential elements of any religious experience is faith. Belief that what you believe is really true. Of course, I think me not believing that that is true prevents me from feeling that excitement and resonating in those kinds of ways.
HODGES: Forgive me for so saying, but that surprises me because you come from a Catholic tradition and Catholicism has the real presence of Jesus in the host—the wafer and wine of the Eucharist. So they believe that the body of Christ is really there, not just symbolically as Protestantism and other traditions have the bread and the wine or water or whatever people use, symbolizes that, but it’s real for Catholics. And also Catholics have a lot of places of pilgrimage where they’ll go and see a saint or relics, “this is a bone of a saint…”
I talked with Robert Orsi about this. There’s such a strong tradition of real presence that, coming from a Latter-day Saint background, I was astounded at the literalness of those presences.
So as a Catholic you see sort of similar things happening in the Hinduism, but you’re having a hard time wrapping your head around it. Tell me more.
CORNILLE: Right. I think it’s maybe the abstractness of the host. So the only element of comparison I would say would be the Eucharist. The images of saints and so on, I don’t think that compares. The Eucharist from a Catholic perspective and the idea of transubstantiation of the bread and the wine, that would be as close as one would get to the idea of the god being really present in the image.
That’s also telling, I think, in terms of how it’s not just the analogy itself, but it’s the element of faith in that particular thing that I’m missing. So I can think sort of by way of “okay, that’s similar to what I experience with the host. I think there are few differences in that there’s a kind of abstraction in the host that the image that is not quite the same as a statue where God is fully present.”
HODGES: I guess the host doesn’t change shape, for example. It still looks like what it did before, whereas maybe with these statues and stuff like that, that is the thing. That is it.
CORNILLE: That is the god, yeah. But also in some ways the statue is in some ways more literal. The host has something symbolic to it still.
HODGES: And it’s miraculous.
CORNILLE: Yeah. It refers to something still beyond itself, and it’s not like a body.
HODGES: It doesn’t become a piece of body before your eyes. Okay.
CORNILLE: Right. So I think that kind of symbolism allows more of a distance, whereas, like, really believing that the statue is god…
I don’t know. Again, what’s difficult about empathy is that it’s so personal. So I may, as a Catholic, not be able to empathize with a certain experience that another Catholic is able to empathize with.
The example I often give is of a colleague of mine who is a professor of anthropology and theology at my university in Louvain, and he worked a lot with the Maasai in Africa. One of the most difficult things for me to understand is spirit possession. So people who suddenly feel like they are possessed by a spirit and no longer in control of their body and mind and speak in different voices and languages and do different things that they’re not in control of. So that kind of experience I have never had and I have no personal resonance with it when I observe it or when I hear about it.
But my colleague who’s a Catholic, also a professor, also very rational, has worked with the Maasai, lived with the Maasai, and he says he has no problem at all empathizing with that experience. When he is actually with the Maasai he has it himself, that kind of experience of spirit possession.
So that shows how difficult a capacity it is to get a complete hold of or to control. There are certain factors that contribute to empathy that I spoke of in my lecture also, but ultimately it’s sort of a mystery how that works.
HODGES: Yeah. So people will want to check out that lecture. We’ll provide a link to that. It’s the Truman G. Madsen Lecture on the Eternal Man, sponsored by the Wheatley Institution.
So empathy leads us into your final condition, which is hospitality. How would you differentiate those two from each other?
CORNILLE: So hospitality is again a much more theological or theoretical category. It has more to do with an appreciation of the possible truth of another religious tradition. So not just resonating with, but allowing for the possibility that there might be truth in another religion that one might learn from.
This is really what I call the sufficient condition for dialogue. The other conditions I call necessary, but this one, the very fact that one believes that there may be truth in another religious tradition, should compel believers to engage the other tradition. So that has to be established again from one’s own religious tradition. That kind of hospitality or generosity towards the possibility of finding truth in another religious tradition is different from humility, but the two together, I think, in finding truth in another religious tradition one then tends to become more humble about one’s own religious tradition, and it’s only through humility about one’s own truth that one will create enough openness to finding truth in another tradition.
HODGES: So these are conditions that can mutually reinforce each other.
HODGES: So hospitality, it’s not just being nice, inviting someone in and giving them a nice comfortable chair and a cool glass of water. It seems to require—in what you’re saying—an openness, the possibility that you have something to learn from someone else, that someone else has something genuine and distinctive from your own tradition or belief, that you don’t actually have.
But you say that’s a sufficient condition, so it’s a good thing to have, but it’s not a deal breaker if someone doesn’t have that. Is that right?
CORNILLE: No, by sufficient I mean something quite the opposite. That just believing that the other has something that is distinctive and true is enough—sufficient—enough to motivate oneself to engage with the other. Or should compel one to engage with the other.
HODGES: So it can actually trickle back through the other conditions?
CORNILLE: Right. Yeah.
CORNILLE: So the other conditions contribute to it, but just that in itself—just me thinking that you have something that I don’t know, and that is important for me to know will drive me to speak to you and to hear more of what you have to say. That alone is enough for me to want to speak to you. That’s what I mean by sufficient condition for dialogue.
But that, again, tends to not come naturally to religious traditions, and requires religions to find sources within their own tradition that recognize the other religion as a source of distinctive truth. So most religions have no problem recognizing truth in other religions that is the same as what they already believe. So that’s uncontroversial. But what would be necessary for genuine dialogue is to go further and to allow for the possibility that the other religion might have truth that I don’t know. So that kind of excess truth that will benefit me and my tradition, that’s really what is at the origin, or what motivates dialogue in the most explicit or strongest way.
HODGES: Is there a significant example that you can think of where you have experienced this type of hospitality? Where you have received something from another tradition or someone that you’re talking with that changed your own personal faith, or that contributed something to your own personal faith that Catholicism hadn’t given you?
CORNILLE: Well, as I mentioned in the beginning of our conversation, I was from a very young age already quite interested in Asian traditions and certain practices that they have developed that allow us as Christians maybe to live up to our own faith.
I’m thinking particularly about the way in which those traditions have understood the working of the mind and the control of the mind. So there are many Christian teachings that are very important to me, but that the tradition itself has not fully developed in terms of how to live up to the ideal of dying to oneself, for example, or all of the teachings of Christianity that have to do with love of neighbor and overcoming ones own selfish attachments and so on, how to attain that state of perfection that Jesus calls for in Matthew chapters five and six.
So I think Christianity sets a very high bar for purity of heart and mind. But how to attain that kind of purity, I think, is something where Christianity might learn from other religions that have maybe developed a stronger understanding of how the mind works in terms of selfish desires and attachments and what kind of techniques might help us to overcome these attachments.
So for me, the Buddhist meditation, Hindu practices of yoga, all of those kinds of religious disciplines, I think, can help us as Christians live up to our own highest goals, and that’s an example of where I’ve really recognized in other traditions something new and distinctive.
HODGES: Thank you. Do you have any advice for people who are reluctant to engage in interreligious dialogue? Someone who says, “I don’t know if I’d be comfortable doing that,” or “I’m afraid of doing that,” or “I don’t even need to do that.”
CORNILLE: I think all of the major religions of the world have survived because they have given meaning and purpose to people’s lives and allowed people to deepen and grow in their relationship to God. So just out of a humanistic orientation of wanting to understand how other human beings have understood ultimate reality is already a basic motivation for one’s curiosity and interest in other religious traditions.
But other than that, I think every religious tradition from my own point of view is limited. You can still believe in the superiority of your own tradition. So for people who are afraid of interreligious dialogue because it might lead to relativism, I think you can still believe in the fact that your religion is still superior, but that doesn’t mean that other religions don’t have elements that your religion has not understood with the same kind of depth and sophistication as your religion.
So just out of curiosity and interest in other human beings, but also in alternate reality itself—I don’t think there’s any reason to fear other religious traditions if you are strong enough in your own faith. Sometimes the fact that dialogue may question your own commitment is a good thing. It may sort of make your own commitment more real and more profound, and purify your own sense of religious understanding.
CORNILLE’S CURRENT PROJECTS
HODGES: What have you been working on since this book came out?
CORNILLE: So just last week I organized a major conference on atonement and comparative theology where I invited major Christian comparative theologians who have been working in other religious traditions to reflect on how that engagement with other religions can shed new light on the Christian understanding of atonement or the vicarious suffering of Christ. So I am hoping to publish those papers, which were brilliant.
Then I myself just this past summer finished a book on meaning and method in comparative theology. So “comparative theology” is the systematic theological engagement with another religious tradition, and that has been developing within the Christian tradition for the past twenty or thirty years, and different comparative theologians have done it in different ways. So there’s a bit of confusion about what comparative theology is. So what I try to do in the book is develop a kind of systematic exposition of what comparative theology is, what comparative theological hermeneutics is, how to do it, and so forth. What different types of learning are, and so forth.
HODGES: And where can people expect to see that? Who is going to be putting that out?
CORNILLE: Wiley is publishing that in the spring of 2019.
HODGES: That’s Catherine Cornille. She earned her PhD in religious studies from the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium. She’s the author of The Im-Possibility of Interreligious Dialogue. Catherine, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us today.
CORNILLE: You’re welcome.
HODGES: And I want to say too, the way that you respond to a lot of my questions I think really reflected sustained engagement in interreligious conversation. I hope this interview helps people understand what interreligious dialogue can do, but I hope that it also can serve as an example of constructive dialogue and respectful engagement itself. So thank you very much.
CORNILLE: Thank you.
HODGES: Thanks for listening to another episode of the Maxwell Institute Podcast. As always, we have a transcript of this episode available at mi.byu.edu [which you are reading right now!]. Our review of the month this time comes from “HI boy in TX.” He says, “Blair Hodges does a wonderful job. Great guests, informative, thought-provoking, and inspiring. Kudos also to Terryl Givens for his knowledge and insights.”
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