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Difference With Mutual Respect: A New Kind of Hindu-Christian Dialogue

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In an earlier blog, I introduced the concept of mutual respect and why it is superior to the patronizing notion of “tolerance” that is typically celebrated at interfaith events. My recent book, “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 in 2010 to read through my entire manuscript and write me his useful comments, he and I have also responded to each others public talks over the years and argued online. There have been agreements and disagreements, but always with mutual respect. I wish to reflect on how this experience relates to my overall approach to interfaith dialogues.

Chapter one of my book is titled “The Audacity of Difference,” and it 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 mostly (but not entirely) in agreement with my approach to difference.

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, trivializing of its important 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 as a positive posture of Christian friendship toward 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.

  • Rajender Razdan

    While a dialog between different traditions based on “mutual respect” as opposed to mere “tolerance” sounds like a good idea, I don’t think it is practical. You have already pointed out that such a concept is nearly impossible for a Christian or a Muslim to uphold towards others since they hold an exclusivist point of view. But by the same token, how can I, for example, as a Hindu, have respect for the Christian
    or Islamic point of view that has, as its basis, the exclusivist view
    that they ALONE have the right answers. In my mind, what is needed is not mutual respect to the views of others, but instead mutual freedom to express one’s views without censure or without having someone else attach labels such as “Islamophobe” or “Hindu zealot” to the person making his or her opinion. It is unfortunate that while we can freely express our political views, or views on art and culture, expressing contrarian views when it comes to religion is still considered such a no-no. I agree with you that the Eastern traditions have always allowed for such free expressions with respect to beliefs (including the Charvaka philosophy that openly ridiculed the Vedas), but such a tradition is not completely absent in the West either. The Western renaissance period did allow the growth of a scientific viewpoint that has quite often openly rejected the Judeo-Christian doctrines of time and space. And there are a large number of atheists and agnostics who are openly rebelling against the Judeo-Christian doctrines.

    • Paul Inberea

      It’s human nature to strive to belong to a group, to have a common core. It’s not really possible to ‘celebrate’ differences. Respect is probably possible.

  • Rajender Razdan

    While a dialog between different traditions based on “mutual respect” as
    opposed to mere “tolerance” sounds like a good idea, I don’t think it
    is practical. You have already pointed out that such a concept is nearly
    impossible for a Christian or a Muslim to uphold towards others since
    they hold an exclusivist point of view. But by the same token, how can
    I, for example, as a Hindu, have respect for the Christian
    or Islamic point of view that has, as its basis, the exclusivist view
    that they ALONE are right?

    In my mind, what is needed is
    not mutual respect to the views of others, but instead mutual freedom to
    express one’s views without censure or without having someone else
    attach labels such as “Islamophobe” or “Hindu zealot” to the person
    making his or her opinion. It is unfortunate that while we can freely
    express our political views, or views on art and culture, expressing critical views when it comes to religion is still considered such a
    no-no. I agree with you that the Eastern traditions have always allowed
    for such free expressions with respect to beliefs (including the
    Charvaka philosophy that openly ridiculed the Vedas), but such a
    tradition is not completely absent in the West either. The Western
    renaissance period did allow the growth of a scientific viewpoint that
    has quite often openly rejected the Judeo-Christian doctrines of time
    and space. And there are a large number of atheists and agnostics who
    are openly and regularly challenge the Judeo-Christian beliefs.

  • Paul Inberea

    It’s not humanly possible to believe ALL beliefs. Each Believer has his own beliefs, and therefore rules out all other beliefs. It’s just that some religions ‘say’ they accept all beliefs, but in fact, they do not. Because ‘accepting all beliefs’, rules out the belief, that there is One Belief. However, I still think that there is One Truth. And I believe that.

  • Shriram Bhandari

    I personally feel some of the things he says are right. The problem came into being when people of other religions such as Christianity and Islam had started asking questions to Hindus, like you guys have so many gods and so on. Hindus are generally not disturbed by this. It would have been nice if every follower of every religion atleast had the basic sense of understanding that faith is something completely personal so we need not question another person’s faith. Even though I disagree with the Christian theology, I will still say they can have their own approach to God.