The basis for inter-religious dialogue

Raimundo Panikkar was a scholar who studied inter-religious dialogue. He held doctorate degrees in philosophy, chemistry, and theology. While serving as professor of religious studies at the University of California in Santa Barbara, Panikkar wrote a short essay about the necessary conditions for inter-religious dialogue:

“The modern kosmology (sic) assuming time is linear, history is paramount, individuality is the essence of Man (sic), democracy is an absolute, technocracy is neutral, social darwinism, and the like, cannot offer a fair platform for the Dialogue [between religions]. The basis for the Dialogue cannot be the modern Western myth.” — “The Ongoing Dialogue,” Journal of Hindu-Christian Studies, vol. 2, 1989.

We Unitarian Universalists mostly assume that we have somehow moved beyond myths; yet most of us buy into the modern Western myth. Our “Seven Principles” specifically affirm individuality and democracy as among our highest values. Many of say “We believe in science,” and part of that belief is that science (and there seems to be little difference between our “science” andwhat Panikkar calls “technocracy”) represent a culturally neutral viewpoint. And of course we affirm that time is linear. All these things seem to us to be axiomatically true; how could they be doubted?

Yet I think Panikkar is correct. We think of human individuality, democracy, belief in science, and the linearity of time as axiomatic — but we also know from our own tradition of logic that axioms cannot be proved from within a logically consistent system. These axioms, like all axioms, are in some sense matters of belief. They are part of our foundational myth.

We Unitarian Universalists think we’re supremely rational and we don’t have myths. This attitude can cause problems when we try to engage in inter-religious dialogue. I don’t mind if we think we’re right and other religions are wrong — that’s what human beings do — but I do mind when we we’re not even aware that that’s what we’re doing.

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