Peaceful Religious Encounters (2/2)

Protoreligiosity of Non-Violence (Ahimsa/Gandhi) in Theory and Practice

This article is the second part of Mall’s blog post on Peaceful Religious Encounters – Protoreligiosity of Non-Violence. However, we think the second part is an article in its own:

6. The Concept of an interculturally and interreligiously oriented „analogous hermeneutics of overlapping contents” beyond the hermeneutics of total identity and radical difference

The globally present multicultural and multireligious context today has made one thing abundantly clear: The de facto intercultural and interreligious hermeneutic situation has outgrown the Greco-European and Judaic-Christian-islamic interpretation of culture, philosophy and religion. It calls for a deconstruction of an exclusive relation between truth and tradition. Truth of the tradition and truth in the tradition are two different things and must not be confused with one another. It has been a historical contingency that certain cultures and religions succeded in defining truth in terms of their own cultures and their cultures in terms of truth.

The word hermeneutics is, no doubt, Greek and Western but the idea and the practice of it is an anthropological constant.

Indian thought, for example, possesses a very rich hermeneutic tradition. The science of hermeneutics as an art of interpretation and understanding undergoes a fundamental change in the global context of interculturality and interreligiosity today and it experiences an unprecedented widening of horizon” which does not necessarily go hand in hand with a real “fusion of horizon (Horizontverschmelzung – Gadamer). This means that every hermeneutics has its own culturally sedimented roots and cannot claim a universal acceptance unconditionally. Any dialogue, most importantly of course the intercultural and interreligious one, has to take this insight as a point of departure.

The way cultures and religions meet and address each other today is of a different quality for it takes place in the spirit of reciprocity. A fourfold relation characterizes the de facto hermeneutic situation. Let us apply this fourfold hermeneutics to an interculturally interreligiously oriented discourse between European and non-European thought. First of all, there is the self-hermeneutics of the European mind. Secondly, there is the European understanding of the Non-European mind. This has been the case since the invasion of Alexander the Great in India and the „discovery“ of America by Columbus. Thirdly, there is the self-hermeneutics of the Non-Europeans and fourthly, and this is something novel for the European mind, the Non-European understanding of Europe. Hermeneutics is thus no more a one-way road, and the question arises who understands whom, when, how and why better.

Europe is more surprised today to see that Non-Europeans are critically interpreting Europe because Europe, luckily or unluckily has hardly ever been an object of interpretation by non-Europeans. Of course, non-Europeans did interpret Europe but it was of little avail because of some other powerful factors like colonialism, imperialism etc.1

The concept of an „analogous hermeneutics“ which does justice to a de facto hermeneutic situation today is neither the hermeneutics of total identity, which reduces the other to an echo of oneself and repeats its self-understanding in the name of understanding the other or that of radical difference, which makes the understanding of the other rather impossible. It does not put any one culture or religion in an absolute position of generality and reduces all others to some form of it. Philosophical and religious theories which set up a hierarchical model of a linear series of development culminating in one favoured philosophy or religion, be it the system of Plato or of Augustine, of Kant or of Hegel, of Shankara or Nagarjuna, of Confucius or of Lao Tzu, of Christianity, Islam, Hinduism or Buddhism are to be rejected. There is no one universal hermeneutic subject over and above the sedimented cultural, historical subjects; it is rather a reflexive-meditative attitude accompanying the different subjects with a warning not to absolutize. Such a hermeneutic attitude helps us overcome the feeling of our being hopelessly involved in the hermeneutic circle. It further frees us from our tendency to define truth in terms of one particular tradition and this tradition in terms of truth.

7. Tertium Comparationis and interreligious encounter

The central thesis is a threefold one: 1. To fix ‘tertium comparationis’ in an a priori vein solely in one culture or religion is theoretically unsound and practically harmful. It is a wrong religious move, be it Western or non-Western. 2. Since the idea of total purity and radical difference of cultures, philosophies and religions is a fiction, all cultures, philosophies and religions, of course in various degrees meet to differ and differ to meet. 3. Thus, the real seat of an analogically constituted ‘tertium comparationis’ is the overlapping ‘in-between’ among cultures, philosophies and religions.

In my attempt to answer the question concerning the conditions, possibilities and limits of intercultural and interreligious understanding, I find myself caught up in a paradoxical situation which I can neither really avoid nor fully resolve, for I am an insider and outsider at the same time. My exposition is thus going to be an impressionistic account of my constant effort at translating and comparing cultures and religions. I am, thereby, guided by the conviction that the two fictions of total commensurability and of radical incommensurability among cultures have to be given up in favour of a metonymic thesis of dynamically overlapping structures. Since no culture and no religion is just a windowless monad, all cultures and religions possess intercultural and interreligious overlappings in varying degrees.

Difference is not just difference. We may distinguish between two meanings of difference:

  1. Two things are different as instances of a generic concept e. g. two philosophies, two religions, two cultures, two persons, two languages etc.
  2. Two things are radically different when they do not share a generic concept. It is the first sense of difference, which supports our interculturally oriented framework of tertium comparationis.

Of course, the generic concept need not be a hypostatized privileging unity at the cost of difference as many cultures and religions often manifest. At the same time, the act of privileging differences at the cost of unity is no less metaphysical. What we need is a phenomenological description of the mode of givenness of tertium comparationis as the real seat of mediation between differences and unities. Indian epistemology goes even so far as to give comparison (Upamana) the status of an independent means of knowledge.

Till recently, the wrongly conceived and privileged paradigm of comparison has been a movement from West to East. Comparative philosophy and religion in this guise have mostly remained unfruitful because of their hegemonic bias. Comparison in a post-colonial and post-hegemonic era is no longer a one-way road. Today, philosophies, cultures and religions lend themselves to reciprocal comparison, both inter- and intraculturally.

Two fictions must be avoided if comparison takes place in the spirit of an intercultural and interreligious orientation, which does not give undue privileged treatment to any one particular tradition, takes “philosophia and religio perennis” to be a regulative idea, and abstains from any essentialist fixation. The idea of a total commensurability and that of a radical incommensurability between different frameworks is fictitious and endangers any communication and understanding because it either makes it redundant or impossible. The real bias lying at the root of both these two fictions is the belief in the total purity of a culture and religion. The paradigm of interreligiosity underlies the idea of a “situated unsituatedness” or “unsituated situatedness” and aims at a reciprocal understanding and communication in full recognition of differences. Having one religion and having another religion is still to have a religion.

One of the far-reaching insights in modern philosophy comes from Husserl’s phenomenology. If extremes ever happen to meet in some common overlapping space, then this space is the habitat of tertium comparationis available to phenomenological method of description beyond all speculations. In our search for an overlapping tertium comparationis as the real seat of an analogical conceptual framework we must avoid the temptation of speculative metaphysics to find a generic concept common to all its instances. In case of a generic concept say of religion, the term may have a prefixed definition of religion and applies it to all cases of religion. In case of a generic concept of religion with an analogical import, all the different religions are instances of religion in spite of the fact that as concrete cases of religion they may sometimes be even very different. This is the reason why we attach the predicate religion to Christianity, to Hinduism, to Islam and to Buddhism. Religions are religions after all in spite of differences.

8. Attempt at an application of Jain Logic and methodology of non-onesidedness (Anekantavada) to interreligious and interfaith encounter today

In working out my concept of an intercultually and interreligiously oriented tertium comparationis I have drawn on many sources, for example, Husserl, Ricoeur, Plessner, Mohanty, Matilal and, above all, the most suitable methodological approach of the Jain idea of manysidedness (anakantavada), conditional predication (syadvada) and theory of standpoint (nayavada). This methodology does not ontologize and essentialize and can be very well applied to our present needs for an intercultural and interreligious encounter. Added to this, this Jain methodology is de-constructive – deconstructive of absolutizing truth claims of particular standpoints (nayas). What Jain thinkers did in those days in Indian philosophical and religious context I have tried to do it in the modern global context by way of recontextualization and reconceptualization.

The Jain plaidoyer for a reciprocal recognition of different standpoints (nayas) is one of the best methodological moves in the service of an intercultural and interreligious understanding and communication, which are not exclusive but rather complementary to each other. One of the strongest methodological arguments in the service of a badly needed intercultural and interreligious hermeneutics is the conviction of Jain philosophy that two standpoints may be contrary or even contradictory to each other but they still are standpoints. It is here that the category of difference becomes a binding force supporting interreligious dialogue.

It is not the unavoidability of the necessity of having a standpoint, which stands in the way of a harmonious interreligious dialogue; it is rather our temptation to absolutize our own standpoints.

This insight leads us to the recognition of overlapping interreligious contents and is the source of the logic of conversation beyond the two fictions of total commensurability and radical difference. The moment we universalize one particular standpoint (naya) we are led to a wrong standpoint (durnaya), which is not only violent on practical level but implies some sort of a theoretical violence. Jain thinkers did accuse Buddhists and Vedantins of such a onesided universalization. Religions may be and in fact are peaceful and violent both on a theoretical and practical level. Any religion which claims to be in possession of truth exclusively is violent already on the theoretical level. Some type of a theoretical intolerance, some sort of a theoretical fundamentalism is at work here. On the other hand, it is a welcome sign of tolerance if religions do not claim such absoluteness.

The true spirit of interculturality and interreligiosity proclaims as its motto that the desire to understand and the desire to be understood go hand in hand and are the two sides of one and the same interculturally and interreligiously oriented hermeneutic coin. The mere desire to understand the other may turn out to be empty and the mere desire only to be understood by the other may become blind. In the long period of colonization, whether in culture, religion or politics, the desire to be understood was most powerful on the part of the colonizers. A number of missionaries took great pains to learn languages like Sanskrit, Hindi, Tamil etc., in order not so much to understand say Hinduism but let others understand Christianity. Here the ultimate tertium comparationis was already fixed in Christian religiosity before any comparison took place.

In case we are on the verge of a very promising intercultural and interreligious encounter today in the wake of the global formation (and it seems we are) we are all committed to lead it to success. This is possible only when we give up all centrisms and absolutistic truth claims. No culture, no religion is only an exporter or importer. There is a give and take ethos at work in every act of reciprocal understanding.

The study of cultures and religions from an intercultural perspective shows fundamental similarities and illuminating differences. This compex pattern of similarities and dissimilarities forms an important basis for intercultural and interreligious dialogue. Interreligiosity is, as mentined earlier, the name of an ethos connecting all religions as their overlapping centre. In the absence of such an ethos all interreligious dialogues are samples of no real value. Methodologically and also from the point of view of conviction it belongs to the very essence of such an interreligious ethos that there are various ways to one and the same religious truth. The claim to absolute truth is not necessarily bad if it is just for the person or the group. But the moment it demands a universal following, it becomes absolutistic in a negatively fundamentalist sense. Absolutistic truth claims are, at the most proposals and must not be confused with ontological truths. Whoever sermonises with a conviction of the falsity of other religions misses the point.

An interreligious hermeneutics based on such an ethos of believe and let believe rejects not only the fiction of a total religious commensurability but also that of a complete incommensurability among religions. The ethos of interreligiosity testifies to the fact of religious overlapping which is the sine qua non for any sincere religious dialogue. The interreligious hermeneutics we plead for here starts from the concept of overlapping as its methodological postulate and tries to realise it as its supreme goal. As an example of such an overlapping, we can mention that whereas Hindus and Buddhists appeal to the religious hypothesis of karma-doctrine and rebirth in their search for heavenly justice, Christians and Muslims do the same by taking recourse to the will of God. The hermeneutics, which is at work here may be termed analogous interreligious hermeneutics, which allows for polymorphic theological anchorage as against the hermeneutics of identity which is far too exclusive in nature.

If the hermeneutic dilemma consists in the seemingly paradoxical situation that we cannot understand without having certain prejudices and that we fail to understand if we have only prejudices, then the task of finding a way out is incumbent upon us. To say that we are caught up in this hermeneutic circle does not help much. The way out seems to lie in the interreligious conviction of one truth under different names. Such an attitude enables us to respect the plurality of religions. It also frees us from the worry we might have about the truth of our religion in face of other religions. From the premise: my religion is true does not follow the falsity of your religion unless I define the truth of my religion as essentially constituted by the falsity of your religion. Interreligiosity as we understand it here approves of experiential pluralism, which differentiates but does not discriminate.

The intercultural and interreligious hermeneutics we plead for stands not only for a way of thought but also for a way of life. It is wrong to think that such a polytheological anchorage betrays the idea of religious earnestness. Sometimes Buddhism and Hinduism are accused of such an attitude. But those who argue like this fail to realise that they mistake earnestness with a fighting spirit. Human history supplies us with enough examples for the thesis that polytheism is as a rule more tolerant than monotheism. The prefix „mono“has always been impatient and tends towards a deadly logic of either-or, leaving no room for compromise, cooperation and dialogue. That is why there lurks a danger in overrating the importance of consensualism. Reciprocal understanding needs acquiscence not because of consensus but because of disensus. Dissens is normally there, consensus is what we aim at and compromise seems to bet the golden mean. All that we should try to avoid is the dubious and empty character of the compromises. And this again is possible on the ground of cultivating the inner virtue of inter- and protoreligiosity.2

9. Intercultural and interreligious orientation and the idea of a ‘self-commitment’ theory of tolerance

To tolerate is not just to endure, born out of the conviction of the sole truth of one’s won position. It is not some sort of a behavioural correctness. This is a far too negative connotation of tolerance. Without going into any detailed and overly too academic discussion of this concept in the history of ideas, I would rather recontextualize it in the present multireligious situation. Real tolerance is born out of the conviction that one’s own position is one among many alternative positions with no apriori, idealogical, and ontological, speculative or theological privilege.

To tolerate is thus to recognize and respect the category of difference without any fear of thereby not taking one’s own postion seriously or giving it up.

Tolerance is a virtue related to compassion and we are committed to it. Intolerance is a vice and we are committed to protest and fight against it in some form or other. Tolerance and intolerance take place at two levels: theoretical and practical.

  • Tolerance at the level of theory (theoretical tolerance) is the conviction, for example that my religion for me is the only true religion without implying the falsity of other religions. Intolerance at the theoretical level (theoretical intolerance) consists in absolutizing one’s own position and claiming universal validity and application for it.
  • Practical tolerance is the consequence of the theoretical tolerance. Practical intolerance follows theroretical intolerance.

It is not true that an intolerant theoretical position may sometimes be quite tolerant in practice. But this is, in nearly all cases, some sort of a tricky strategic manouver. On the other hand, a theoretically tolerant position may in practice be quite intolerant unter the influence and pressure of some other very powerful factors in human behaviour.

European liberalism in its non-liberal forms in the days of colonialism and imperialism is a case in point. Mahatma Gandhi used to remind his British friends and interlocutors of this. European emancipation was not emancipated at all in its relation to the colonies in many parts of the world.

An intercultually and interreligiously oriented ‘self-commitment’ theory of tolerance is characterized by the following motto: Tolerate the tolerant. It is a tricky and hypocritical manouver if intolerance demands tolerance from the tolerance because of latter’s being tolerant. To be tolerant is not to be indifferent. To do this would be more than dilution. A tolerant position is duty bound to protest against an intolerant position if the latter endangers the very virtue of tolerance, which a tolerant position is committed to.

Although it is impossible to formulate some sort of a categorical imperative in the maze of the complex relationships between tolerance and intolerance, one thing is still binding: Our tendency to unity must not be allowed to degenerate into uniformity leading to some sort of an obsession. According to Paul Ricoueur ‘ unification of truth’ is is an act of violence, is the very ‘ first wrong step’.

10. Back once again to “tertium comparationis” embedded in an intercultural and interreligious framework

Let me ask two questions on my way to finding an answer for an overlapping framework in the service of a peaceful encounter of religions: First, how similar must cultures, religions be in order to be comparable at all and second how different should they be in order not to be comparable at all?

Comparisons are well nigh impossible if we maintain the thesis of total commensurability. There is a branch of an ill founded hermeneutics, let me term it hermeneutics of identity, which defines hermeneutics as a duplication of self-understanding. A hermenneutics of radical difference commits the same mistake with the roles reversed. A tells B: you don’t understand me if you fail to understand me the way I understand myself or the way I want you to understand me. But if identity of views defines understanding, there is hardly any fun in our pursuit of understanding the other. Total identity makes understanding redundant. If, on the other hand A tells B you cannot understand me because your views are so radically different that understanding is not possible. A does not undertake the trouble to start to understand. He rather deduces the failure of understanding from his assertion of radical differences. The better way would be the other way round. Both these frameworks are not in a position to supply us with a mediating concept of a tertium comparationis. Our search for an intercultural and interreligious overlapping framework tries to answer the question: How is it possible that two thought frameworks, otherwise very different, can still have something common so as to legitimately deserve the predicate to be a framework? The way out seems to lie somewhere in the middle. We should reject, as mentioned above, the two fictions of a total identity (commensurability) and of a radical difference (incommensurability) and search for mediating overlaps as the real seat of tertium comparationis. There are degrees of similarity and of difference. Overlaps recognise difference and make use of similarity. Of course, we should avoid the temptation of essentializing difference as well as similarity. There seems to be some sort of a Wittgensteinian ‘family resemblance’ here at work. It is true that there is deep-rooted desire in the human heart to start or to end with one picture of the one ultimate reality. But such an ontological or theological step, if it singularizes and absolutizes itself, stands in the way of any harmonious interreligious dialogue.

We all know that Buddhism and Jainism have always been and still are a challenge to all strictly theistic models of religion.

So the motto ‘God has different names’ (Hick) seems to ontologize the idea of God and fails to take notice of the incompatibilities in the names. There are other candidates claiming for one truth under different names, for example Otto’s category of the Holy and Eliade’s catefory of the Sacred. Otto makes an a priori move and he subsumes under it Buddhist ‘shunyata’ (void, emptiness) and Vedantic ‘atman-brahman-non-duality’. He, of course, separates the idea of the Holy from the idea of God, which furthers the cause of inter faith dialogues. But Otto raises the category of the Holy to an unwarranted level of generality, which really fails to do justice to the rich variety of religious experiences. Otto ontologizes and universalizes the category of the Holy, which may be based on an act of faith. Eliade’s idea of the Sacred seems to fare better because it is wider and takes into account the rich field of symbolism. To say that human beings are essentially religious by nature is true only when we are ready to attach this predicate not only to Hinduism, Christianity and Islam but also to Buddhism, Jainism and Taoism etc.

The point I want to make is that it is not the case that all religions talk about and refer to the self same truth only under different names. They do talk about different things but at the same they share a common protoreligious concern, which is to find out a way of redemption from our unsatisfying existential lot here on earth. The best candidate for this commonly shared ground is soteriology. I am, of course, fully aware of its being imbedded in the Western-Christian history of ideas because there is always a saviour (soter) at work and such an understanding would deny the predicate’religion’ to religions like say Buddhism, Jainism and the like. The issue is quite controversial and there are religious thinkers who are pro and contra. In the spirit of interreligiosity, I dare plead for an extension of the meaning of the term ‘soteriology’ essentially attached to an ultimate goal of liberation with the possibility of different paths, different means of redemption. Religions with a personified saviour are one of the paths but not the only one. The question can well be asked whether there is an authentic atheistic, humanistic, spiritual religiosity? Why not, if we allow for religious experience of the sacred in its theistic and atheistic forms.

There is a strong, rather homemade fear of relativism. Of course relativism, which makes truth with a capital ‘T’ relative to only one gestalt of philosophy, religion or theology, becomes dictatorial because of its singularization and absolutization. Such relativism must be rejected as detrimental to interreligious dialogue. Here, relativism and absolutism seem to conspire together and represent two sides of the same coin. Is not absolutism some sort of a universalised relativism? But if relativism, on the other hand, means that we human beings, including philosophers and theologians, do possess different views, insights and convictions as to what is truth, knowledge, God, Holy, Sacred, then I simply wonder how one could avoid being a relativist. Added to this, such relativism is diffident, tolerant, open and conducive to any peaceful intercultural und interreligious dialogue. Such relativism is not only humane but also godly. Irrespective of the fact whether we are Christians, Muslims, Hindus or Buddhists, the de facto multicultural and multireligious situation in the globalized world of today has made one thing abundantly clear that there is hardly any theistic consensus in our talk of God. This has the further implication that any claim to a privileged standpoint is no more convincing today.

There is a question which I cannot avoid asking here. And it is this: Is the claim to absoluteness essentially constitutive of a religion or a faith or is it something due to tradition? In other words, is it a part of the scriptura or of the traditio, in Indian terminology of shruti or of Smriti? Irrespective of whether it is a part of the Holy Scripture or of the tradition, the claim to absolutism in combination with universal valitidity must be given up because of its detrimental effect on interreligious, interfaith dialogue and harmony.

11. Concluding Remarks

What are the implications for praxis of the logic and methodology of protoreligiosity? The spirit of this logic requires us to

  • give up all absolutist claims
  • avoid all fixations of tertirum comparationis in one particular religion
  • refrain from the claim to be in sole possession of the ‘virgin’meaning of the text all alone
  • Differentiate between uniqueness ans absoluteness
  • give up the idea of an absolute religion or faith with universal acceptance
  • take other religions and faiths as alternatives seriously
  • keep in iind that absoluteness of the truth of your religion for you does in no way mean the falsity of other religions
  • recognize and respect plurality of religions not only as a secular but also as a sacral virture
  • remember that no religion is sacrosanct because of its narratives regarding creation, reward, punishment, rituals, ceremonies and a host of dogmas but because of the binding protoreligiosity of ‘non-violence’ (Ahimsa), of love and compassion allowing for religions and faiths with or without a theistic anchorage.

I often ask myself: What to do if a religion claims exclusive absoluteness along with universal validity and maintains further that this claim is not a human claim in the first instance but a commandment of ‘God’? I feel I can do no better than to approvingly quote the wise and cautionary words of the Indian poet-philosopher and neo-hinduist, Tagore in his message to the parliament of religions:

The self-expression of God is in the variedness of creation…If humanity ever happens to be overwhelmed with the universal flood of a bigoted exclusiveness, then God will have to make provision for another Noah’s Ark to save His creatures from the catastrophe of spiritual desolation.

Tagore, R.: Boundless Sky, Calcutta 1964, p. 274.

Prof. Dr. Ram A. Mall hat die Gesellschaft für Interkulturelle Philosophie gegründet und forschte und veröffentlichte als Professor der Philosophie auf dem Gebiet der interkulturellen Philosophie, der vergleichenden Religionswissenschaft und der Phänomenologie.

Copyright Portrait: Christine Mall


1 Cf. Mall, R. A.: Meditationen zuum Adjektiv “europäisch” aus interkultureller Sicht. München 1990, pp.139-150

2 Mall, R.A.: Zur Hermeneutik des Einen mit vielen Namen. Eine interkulturelle Perspektive. In: Die Sprachen der Religion. Berlin 2003, 349-375.

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