An aching interfaith dialogue

In an increasingly small world, contact with the other becomes not an exotic moment but an every day event. This is true for languages and cultural attitudes, but also religion. And unless we’re planning the creation or upholding of a single world faith or practice (not a good idea, if you ask me), the only way forward is respect, understanding, and tolerance. This is where interreligious debate comes in and it’s an experience polytheists often find to be marred by hostility and prejudice.

Let’s face it: western interfaith dialogue suffers from 1500 years of monotheistic dominion! It aches from millennia and a half of exclusivist claims to truth and a monopoly of the divine that has shaped mentalities, philosophical notions, and the study of religion and religious experience. People try to go around it, but the best they manage to do is to downplay differences to the point that the only alternative to monotheism is monism in the form of the belief that all religions worship the same “God” in different ways. It’s the easy way out of the I-alone-have-the-truth hole that exclusivist monotheism duged for itself and which the modern world increasingly rejects; and it would work if the only existing religions were the Abrahamic three, plus Hinduism and the Baha’is. Buddhism gets labelled as “really” just a “philosophy” or ends up in the monistic bag thanks to Nirvana (the state of mind and not the band), the Tao does the same for Taoism, and Shinto is either pushed aside or welcomed as yet another different way of worshipping the same “Divine Force”. The key is to deny polytheism, as that would upset things, and a Portuguese theologian named Anselmo Borges said it all in this recently published book of his. It’s basically a manual for interfaith dialogue and, for the most part, it’s actually good, but it can’t help showing the problems created by 1500 years of monotheistic dominion, as seen in pages 49 and 50:

It cannot be said that there are really polytheistic religions. (…) Polytheism is the assigning of the Divine Force to divinities that appear as its “personifications”.

Yes, you read it right! There’s no such thing as polytheistic religions, which means I and others like me are wrong. We just don’t know what the heck we’re doing… And this gives every bit of credence to the words written here and here by fellow (and apparently non-existing) modern believers in many gods. We get looked down on, giggled at, patronized, misrepresented, or simply ignored. And it’s not because we’re from different religions, but how different! They’ve been building a neat edifice based on an assumption of diverse unity around a single deity and we bring it down, sometimes by the very act of clearing stating our beliefs, so our existence is denied or painted in the same downplaying tones that eliminate real differences to make things easier.

This is counterproductive. There is no constructive dialogue if distinctions are ignored or masked, because then there’ s no real understanding and respect. Interfaith talks often look to me as an exercise on ignoring the elephants in the room and, as Galina Krasskova said, it feels like there’s an underlying fear of conflict, not physical, but theological. Yes, we have things in common: we’re all humans, we share needs and feelings, we claim some sort of experience or link with otherwordly or sacred powers; we live on the same planet, share the same global challenges, and in several cases have common places of worship and similar practices. But we also have differences and there shouldn’t be any fear of showing them. We will never agree on everything, but we can certainly agree to disagree and work on effective ways to coexist despite the differences. That’s what interfaith dialogue should be about, not the elimination of diversity or the creation of a universal theology.

Of course, this poses a problem for monotheistic religions, as their exclusivist claim to truth and to a godly monopoly makes it harder for them to maintain a constructive dialogue with religions that basically believe in the actual diversity of the divine and not just “personifications”. But that, I’m afraid, is a problem they’ll have to solve and not at the expense of denying the existence of parts of the religious universe. They can believe we’re all worshipping the same thing, if they will: just don’t make that the official line or a sine qua non for interfaith dialogue, because that’s the best way to condescend and disrespect the beliefs of others. It’s monotheism that has to adjust its exclusivist nature to the modern world, not the other way around!

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6 thoughts on “An aching interfaith dialogue

  1. Oh, this is so me. As a polytheist and diversity fan I am not just rebelling for the sake of it; I see evidence that the Uni?’verse’ does not necessarily ‘all work beautifully as One’ as many monists claim. That doesn’t mean that things can’t work – without One overseer; it just doesn’t work flawlessly. The ‘verse’ is flawed in many places and it also fits together remarkably well in many other places IMHO and that is the way it is. Example: The flaws in art are often the most beautiful and the very thing that creates peace within the piece.

    Sometimes in art it’s the ‘one’ in a subject that makes it work as a piece of art and sometimes it is the multiplicity within a piece that makes it work.

    Diversity can be very beautiful. Praise be to those who promote its many good values.

    Jason

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