January 21-23, 2010
University of Chicago Divinity School
1025 East 58th Street
Chicago, Illinois, 60637
Title: Staging Dialogue among Indian Philosophers: Thoughts on a Philosophical Play by Jayanta Bhaṭṭa
Abstract: Among the recurrent themes of John Clayton’s Religions, Reasons and Gods is the thought that the Indian tradition of “debate” (vāda) represents a significant alternative to characteristically Enlightenment understandings of public rationality. In particular, Clayton suggests that the Indian tradition reflects the recognition that shared standards of reasoning need not be thought to obtain only where debate issues in agreement; rather, public standards of reasoning can be understood as chiefly meant to clarify difference. I will reflect on some of Clayton’s thoughts in this regard by considering the late first-millennium Indian philosopher Jayanta Bhaṭṭa’s Āgamaḍambara (recently translated as “Much Ado about Religion”) – a play in which a recently graduated, orthodox Brahmanical thinker sets out to best all rivals in debate, only to learn something of the extent of the limits to his own perspective. While the play culminates by urging what might be thought an eminently contemporary sort of cosmopolitan tolerance, I aim to characterize and critique the philosophical basis of Jayanta’s call for toleration – and in particular, Jayanta’s criterion of “being thoroughly accepted by a great [many] people,” which is, for Jayanta, what finally makes any tradition suitable for toleration – and to consider what other options the Indian philosophical scene may afford for thinking through these issues.
Title: The Practical Experience of Inter-religious Dialogue in Lebanon (2004-2008)
Abstract: On the 21st of August 2004, Bechouate, a small Lebanese village located on the slopes of the west side of Mount Lebanon witnessed an apparition of the Virgin Mary. The seer was a young Muslim Sunni boy from Jordan. Since then this isolated Maronite village has become a vast centre of inter-religious pilgrimage. Between August 2004 and January 2006, around one million Christian and Muslim pilgrims flocked to the village. They were mainly Christian Maronites and Muslim Shiites from Lebanon. Since the war of July 2006, the flow of pilgrims has diminished but there are still thousands of visitors coming in May and August every year. Meanwhile a nationalist interpretation was formulated: according to it, the Virgin Mary has delivered a message of “fraternity” and “union” to the Lebanese people in an unsettled period of time.
In order to analyze this phenomenon we need to put it in context. In 2004, Lebanon is at the far end of a relative and fragile period of peace. The country, despite a serious economic crisis, is rebuilt. But it is still under Syrian occupation and the main cause of the civil war is still there. The Taef peace agreement, signed in 1989, while declaring the abolition of confessionalism as a “national priority”, has paradoxically reasserted it. The population which is composed of 18 different religious denominations has never been so segregated. Yet, the inter-religious dialogue, commonly called “al-hiwâr”, in Arabic, is omnipresent in political and religious discourses.
The aim of my paper is to analyze the practical experience of inter-religious dialogue in Lebanon through the example of the Bechouate pilgrimage. I will examine the ways it is experienced by different actors: the clergymen who are deeply involved in inter-religious dialogue, but, at the same time, are concerned by the “religious purity” of their community, exclusive of “compromises or syncretism”; the politicians who use endlessly the word “dialogue” in their discourses with the risk of altering it into an empty slogan; the Bechouate inhabitants who have seen their village, isolated and far from everything, being suddenly transformed into an important inter-religious pilgrimage centre; and finally, the pilgrims who gather in the Virgin Mary’s shrine of Bechouate and are involved in similar religious practices, while being of different denominations.
Title: Dialogue versus Dialectic: Notes on a Platonic Form
Abstract: Plato's works have always been taken as a paradigm of dialogue. But what contemporary dialogue might have to learn from the Platonic form depends on what the latter is, and that is not so obvious. A few negative points are clear. Platonic dialogue is not simply expressive: its function is not mere communication, or the promotion of empathy or consensus. Nor does it express any pluralistic assumption that all viewpoints are somehow valid, or any uncertainty on Plato’s part as to which ones are right. Rather, Plato writes dialogues in order to depict dialectic [dialektikê], philosophical discussion. Platonic dialectic takes many forms, but in most cases it is a formal genre of intellectual display, with questioner and respondent playing asymmetrical roles. Where Platonic dialectic perhaps overlaps with modern hopes for dialogue is in the psychological virtues it deploys and the psychological effects it aims at. Dialectic requires frankness, goodwill, and intellectual honesty; rightly practised, it punctures delusions of wisdom, purges false beliefs, cures souls of internal conflict and produces harmony and friendship. But for Plato these therapeutic aims are inseparable from epistemically rigorous methods. Dialectic is a psychotherapy which operates by establishing objective truths, through ruthlessly impersonal rational argument. So Platonic dialectic poses a challenge to proponents of dialogue today: why suppose that dialogue more broadly construed (say, the open-ended ‘philosophical conversation’ advocated by Richard Rorty) can work as therapy, in the absence of Platonic commitments to objectivity, rationality and pedagogical authority – in the absence of dialectic?
Title: Arabizing Benjamin - A Modern Arabic Translation of the Travels of Benjamin of Tudela
Abstract: My paper examines how Jews in Iraq came to think about themselves as Arab-Jews during the first half of the 20th century and how, during this process, they adopted Islam as a cultural component of their identity. A superb example to the ways in which Jews used Islamic and national values is Ezra Haddad's 1946 translation into Arabic of the travels of Benjamin of Tudela, Rihlat Binyamin [Hebrew: Masa'ot Binyamin, Sefer ha-Masa'ot]. A Navarrese medieval explorer who traveled from Northern Spain in 1165 to Europe, Asia and Africa, Benjamin's pilgrimage to the Holy Land and his accounts from Palestine, Syria, and Iraq had important repercussions for Arab and Iraqi nationalists. The significance of the translation, I argue, emanates from the fact that it "performs" the Arabism of its author, which is expressed by a commentary that sought to address the silences that Haddad identified in Benjamin's original text with respect to the history of Arabs and Muslims. Such gaps were quickly filled with citations from Arab and Muslim sources. This entangled network of references from Islamic history and culture suggests that Haddad assumed that his potential readership was comprised of Arab Muslims and of Jews who were familiar with the Arab-Islamic traditions interlaced into the text. Haddad, I will show, chose the image of the outsider, the foreigner, who looked at an unknown space, in order to celebrate the features of this space. It is the role of the translator to work beyond the strangeness of Benjamin of Tudela and provide the correct information about the text. Finally, the text is a challenge to the attempt to universalize Jewish history. Haddad's analysis clearly stated that Jews under Islamic rule lived a life of tolerance and coexistence. The Jews, according to Haddad, treated the Muslims as liberators from Byzantine rule; they did not suffer like their European brethren from persecution and their culture thrived under, and because of, Islamic culture. Thus, the concepts like the "wandering Jew" were European creations that should be rejected in the Middle Eastern context.
Title: What was Riccoldo da Monte di Croce, O. P (fl. 1267-1316) Doing When He Read His Arabic Qur’an?
Abstract: Friar Riccoldo was one of the most learned Medieval Latin Europeans in both the Arabic language and the religion of Islam. We can trace very closely his practices as Qur’an reader not only through his surviving works on Islam, but also in the pages of a copy of the Qur’an in Arabic that he owned and annotated at great length. After describing some of those reading practices, this paper will ask what functions this intensive engagement with the Qur’anic text served beyond the superficial goal of defending Christianity, and will suggest that Riccoldo’s Qur’an reading, among other things, turns out to be a way of justifying the enormous influence of the Arab world upon the scholastic intellectual movement that so shaped his age and his religious order.
Title: Theorizing Past and Future, Familiar and Foreign: Tocqueville’s and Tahtawi’s Travels in Search of Knowledge
Abstract: This paper juxtaposes the 19th-century journey of Alexis de Tocqueville to America with that of his Egyptian contemporary, Rifa‘a Rafi‘ al-Tahtawi, a member of one of the first student missions Muhammad ‘Ali sent to Paris. I argue that both travels can be characterized as pedagogical theôriai (Greek, plural of theôria, from which the English “theory” is derived) to unfamiliar lands in search of practical wisdom to bring home, and so work as a prism to refract the features of theorizing in two different contexts. More specifically, Tahtawi’s Takhlis al-Ibriz ila Talkhis Bariz [The Extraction of Gold from a Distillation of Paris] and Tocqueville’s Democracy in America disclose the double-edged nature of theorizing comparatively: contrasts with unfamiliar peoples and practices can both inaugurate a journey to a broader field of vision and enact sharp closures to critical reflection on the limits of such vision. Against polemical characterizations of Muslims as insular or intolerant on the one hand, and the voluminous scholarship that focuses exclusively on Western travel on the other, these journeys demonstrate that the desire for new knowledge, the capacity for broadened understanding, and the will to remake another in one’s own image latent in practices of comparison are not the purview of any one cultural constellation or any particular historical epoch.
Title: Companions: Imagining Religious Dialogue in Early Modern England
Abstract: The shape and meaning of religious dialogue has arisen not simply from actual encounters but also from a rich literary tradition of imagined dialogues between representatives of differing religions or about different religions. When one asks “what is dialogue?” any adequate answer must therefore consider the confluence of the actual and the imaginative. The two centuries from Thomas More’s Dialogue of Comfort to David Hume’s Dialogues concerning Natural Religion illustrate the process by which a conception of religious dialogue develops as imaginative dialogues flow into the turbulent waters of early modern religious encounter.
Title: Dialogue and Empire in Asian Early-Modernities
Abstract: In the Indian Mughal Empire under Akbar (1542-1605), and above all in the court of his grandson Prince Dara Shikoh (1615-59), a curious Hindu-Muslim syncretism (perhaps this is too strong a term) arose: Hindu classics were translated into Persian, and high-caste Hindus became Muslim saints. Of course, Hindu-Muslim syncretic movements of various kinds had a long pedigree on the subcontinent, primarily under the aegis of popular devotional movements, but what may be exceptional in the Mughal case is the proximity of such syncretism to the center of imperial power, and its inscription in elite literary culture.
A second case that compels attention is that of Manchu China, particularly under the emperor Qianlong (r. 1736-99). Drawing on long-established precedents, the complementarity of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism virtually became official policy; (Qianlong even made a stab at bringing Islam into the picture and we will need to inquire into his apparent failure in this enterprise). The policy was sufficiently successful, however, so that leading Tibetan Buddhist scholars began to interest themselves in Confucianism and Taoism for the first time.
The religious politics of the Mughal and Manchu empires have been relatively well studied by specialists in each area, but I do not believe that they have so far been treated from a comparative perspective. This is the project for the present paper, inquiring in particular into just what these imperial “dialogues” may have to tell us of the conditions underlying interreligious dialogue more broadly.
Title: Buddhist and Taoist Dialogue in Medieval China: Silence is Golden
Abstract: The rivalry between the two great Chinese religions, Taoism and Buddhism did not prevent them from enjoying a mostly tolerant relationship throughout almost two millennia. The "foreign" Buddhist tradition, originating from India, and the "indigenous" Taoist tradition formed their respective identities and evolved simultaneously, while adopting and adapting the best each had to offer in the domains of theology, organizational systems, texts, and practices. Their silent rivalry was, in this respect, positive and creative. In this presentation, I propose to show that their competition nevertheless became a source of serious conflict, when the two religions were, under political pressure, compelled to enter into dialogue. Their doctrinal debates, subject to imperial arbitration, were, indeed, used as ideological weapons by governments to justify the terrible religious repressions which occurred, several times, during the medieval period.
Title: Toleration, Dialogue, and Civility in Locke, Lessing, and Mendelssohn
Abstract: The Enlightenment is widely understood to have bestowed upon modernity the idea of toleration as the basis for understanding the proper relationship between church and state and, to some degree, among the religions. In its most sweeping form this narrative originates in the thought of Castellio and Montaigne, and finds its most recent expression in thinkers such as Habermas and Rawls. This paper will examine John Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration (1689), arguably the initial crystallizing formulation of the idea, and two dialogical engagements of it: Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s Nathan the Wise (1779), and Moses Mendelssohn’s Jerusalem (1783). The goal will be to understand what happens to Lockean toleration in these treatments: is it dialogically engaged, or is it deconstructed? The answer may turn on how each author understands, implicitly or explicitly, the concept and value of “civility”.
Title: Intersections between Theology and Ethnography in the European Encounter with Other Cultures, 1500-1750
Abstract: Given the dominance of theological discourse in the early-modern cultural system, it was inevitable that there would be a close, albeit often subtle, interaction between theological concerns and the new genres of travel writing and ethnography that accompanied the European colonial ventures of the period. These interactions can be roughly classified in three large sections as discourses of imperial legitimation and critique, the analysis of 'heretical' or 'gentile' religions for the sake of Christian missions, and finally the philosophical understanding of the role of religion in both European and world history. I shall argue that whilst initially what is most obvious is how theology shaped the description and interpretation of non-European cultures, over the centuries ethnography and related genres also came to have a profound impact on the religious self-understanding of European societies. I shall illustrate this with three examples: the evolution of the notion of idolatry, the idea of the salvation of virtuous gentiles, and the debate on biblical chronologies. I shall conclude with a reflection on the notion of religious dialogue in the missionary practices of the period, taking as a starting point the Jesuit method of accommodation, with the controversies and outcomes it generated.
Title: Shared Values -- Different Religions: Dialogue and Global Ethics
Abstract: In various ways, shared moral problems and values have provided the means among religious people for “dialogue in everyday experience.” The last few decades has witnessed on a global scale a variety of movements to develop a “global ethics” that can draw on religious sources and yet move beyond religious convictions. The most famous of these ventures was the “Declaration of the Religions for a Global Ethics” issued at the Parliament of the World’s Religions held in Chicago in 1993. Since that declaration numerous other attempts have been made in the direction of a global ethics, including, for instance, human rights discourse through the United Nations, meetings among various religious communities, the wide-spread discourse of “reverence for life,” and the like. Interestingly, these recent attempts actually continue in our global times a strategy of thought longstanding within the Abrahamic religions, namely, the ability to recognize moral virtue and rectitude wherever found and thus to forge common moral understanding among diverse religious outlooks. That being said, it is also true that the search for common values sufficiently compelling to advance interreligious peace and understanding remains as elusive now as it has always been. The purpose of this lecture is to explore this topic in a movement from the present discussion about global ethics through the history of thought, at least among Christians, Muslims and Jews, in order to return to the current global scene. The main contention will be that while shared values do and can exist among the religions, there are equally powerful forces that thwart the reflexive moral transformation of religious belief and practice which, accordingly, must be acknowledged by those interested in global political and moral challenges.
Title: Dialogue and Disputation in the Medieval Western Mediterranean
Abstract: Modern scholarship on medieval disputations and polemical works—perhaps on all of medieval Western European Christian understanding of the ubiquitous “other”--has focused almost exclusively on what we have judged the most creative, innovative, or potentially most dangerous texts to the Jewish and Muslim minorities of European Christendom. It has privileged clerical over lay texts, given embarrassingly little attention to such fundamental literary questions as authority and audience, or to the circulation of manuscripts, or to establishing a sociology of knowledge. My paper will focus on the lay Genoese Christian-Jewish Disputation of Mallorca of 1286 as a record of conversations which I believe actually took place. I will also give attention to the most widely circulated polemical text of the Middle Ages, the Libellus Rabbi Samuelis of Alfonso Buenhombre, and discuss briefly the enigma of Riccoldo da Montecroce, who, like Alfonso, was a Dominican. Riccoldo apparently spent at least ten years in the Near East, many of these in Baghdad, allegedly knew Arabic and the Qur’an well, professed great admiration in his Itinerarium for the piety of Muslims studying in various madaris there, and certainly was knowledgeable concerning various Eastern Christians. He nevertheless felt compelled to append a vituperative polemic to his Itinerarium, slavishly copied Aquinas in the Eastern Christian section of his Ad Nationes Orientales, and wrote a harsh polemical text in Contra Legem Saracenorum. This latter text betrays little or no evidence of any actual conversations or dialogues Riccoldo may have had with Muslims, evidences little of his actual learning concerning Islam, but was translated into many languages, including German by Martin Luther, and has enjoyed a long shelf life; it has been cited in the twenty-first century by evangelical Christians as proof of Islam’s militarism. I will conclude back in Mallorca, not with any time for analysis of the more than 300 texts of the lay Christian mystic and missionary Ramon Llull, but with a simple observation concerning his life and what we know of the Mallorca of his youth; this observation will accord well with what we know of the psychodynamic development of the individual and of the sociology of religion, but less well with current scholarship on the creation of medieval ideologies of the other.
Title: Festive Dialogues in Potosí
Abstract: In Diego Mexía de Fernangil’s El Dios Pan, a dramatic dialogue composed in 1617, two shepherds attend a Corpus Christi celebration in the South American silver mining boomtown of Potosí. The “gentile” Damón responds to his companion Melibeo’s oral description of the Christian God by acknowledging that he must be “Ineffable, grandiose, and admirable.” Melibeo’s reply, “And I will show you much more,” alludes to the even more powerful rhetorical sway of the visual spectacle of Corpus Christi. The public celebration of the Eucharist in Potosí, he knows, will overwhelm all his companion’s senses and thus more effectively persuade him to abandon his pagan deity, Pan, for the one who manifests himself in pan [bread], according to Catholic doctrine. Damón’s ultimate conversion points to the didactic and evangelistic aims of religious festivals— and dialogues—in the Spanish American colonies and throughout the Iberian empires.
Yet Damón’s bedazzled observation of the Corpus Christi festival in El Dios Pan was not the only means through which Amerindians participated in colonial festivals. Bartolomé Arzáns de Orsúa y Vela’s Historia de la Villa Imperial de Potosí—a voluminous history of the mining town from its foundation in 1545 until 1736, the year of the author’s death—includes abundant references to indigenous participation in the public festivals that were nearly everyday occurrences in colonial Potosí. In Arzáns’s account of a Corpus Christi celebration held in Potosí just nine years before the composition of El Dios Pan, for example, he describes how some one hundred richly dressed indios added luster to the festival through their participation in a mock battle with criollos, or American-born Spaniards. As this paper demonstrates, indigenous participation in Potosí’s festivals far exceeded the demonstration of reverence and subservience expected by religious and civic authorities and enacted by Damón in El Dios Pan. This paper compares Mexía de Fernangil’s dialogue with Arzáns’s history in order to interrogate El Dios Pan’s representation of Damón and to explore the motivations and meanings of indigenous participation in Potosí’s religious festivals, as well as to examine the larger geocultural dialogues in which Mexía de Fernangil and Arzáns were participating through their texts. Why does Arzáns’s history better represent a “dialogic network” of Spanish and Amerindian festive practices than a text that ostensibly grants an indigenous character a voice in the dialogue?
Title: Mobilizing Scholarly Knowledge and Networks for “Religious Dialogue”: The Scriptural State and the Production of the Amman Message
Abstract: In the Fall of 2004 the Jordanian monarchy launched an important initiative, Risalat ‘Amman (the Amman Message), in order to effect internal religious consensus on the definition of Islam. This state sponsored enterprise was followed with an interfaith project bringing Muslim and Christian scholars into dialogue, called Kalimat Sawa (A Common Word). My paper describes the political underpinnings of internal and external interfaith “dialogue” under state sponsorship and its consequences for the state’s religious and political authority. In particular, interfaith dialogue leads the state toward constructing a “mainstreamed” definition of the tradition, with the aim of pacifying the meaning of Islam in a post 9/11 context.