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The intellectual life is essentially and constitutively agonistic. It progresses almost entirely by struggle, by challenge and response, by thesis and antithesis, by getting it wrong and then moving, always asymptotically, toward getting it right. Hegel was wrong, so far as I can tell, about most things, but he was right at least about this: the movement of thought is, in the sense just mentioned, dialectical. Nagarjuna, the second-century Buddhist philosopher, was, if possible, wrong about even more than Hegel, but he too was right at least about the unavoidable necessity of reasoned argument for the maintenance of ethical and epistemic respectability. 

If the intellectual life is like this, if struggle is its blood and bone, then one ought to expect those who think rightly about it to delight in and deploy the imagery and metaphors of battle and war to capture its flavor. And so they do. If you like Buddhist examples, consider the famous image, found in numerous Indian Buddhist works from the first century onward, of the two magical warriors, neither of whom has enduring independent existence, battling one another until both cease to exist: this is an image, for its users, of the nature of argument, but it is also an image that has vitally important soteriological implications, a point that I shall return to later. And you don’t have to read far in current English-language philosophy to stumble over (or delight in, depending upon your tastes) similarly martial imagery: philosophers marshal their forces; they propose defeators; they proffer knock-down, drag-out arguments; they line up their propositions and schemata of argument like so many tin soldiers. 

This sort of thing is what I mean by the word “polemics.” I take it to denote an intellectual virtue. Perhaps more precisely, I take it to denote a mode of intellectual engagement that flows directly from a proper and clear realization of what serious intellectual work is for and how it should best proceed. If you properly engage in this work, you will be interested in arriving at a position on whatever it is that interests you (philosophy, critical theory, history, philology, literary criticism, or whatever) that is preferable to any other that you know of on that question, and you will concomitantly want to be clear as to what the position that you construct and defend is, what it excludes, how best to show that its competitors are less adequate than the one you want to defend, and in what sense this is true. “Polemics,” as I use it here, does not denote or connote simple hostility, or opposition for its own sake—even though the term has come to mean something like this in ordinary English usage. It points, rather, to the kind of engagement that does and should occur when those who take what they believe seriously encounter others equally serious about, and committed to, their beliefs.

Now, in many areas of the academy the above is sufficiently obvious to be regarded as a truism, something that hardly needs saying. Most members of most philosophy departments would, I think, have no trouble with it; so would most members of most literature departments, most jurists, most historians, and so forth. Consider, as an example, the controversies surrounding the recent work of Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin on the ethical and jurisprudential implications of pornography: their conclusion is that pornography, by its very existence, makes the exercise of full citizenship an impossibility for women, and that therefore making such literature illegal is not only consistent with, but is properly implied by, the Constitution of the United States. On the other side of this debate, classical liberals like Ronald Dworkin think that all this is dangerously false, and argue for its falsity. This is a splendid example of the agony (in the technical etymological sense) of the intellectual life. Or, if you prefer philosophical examples, consider the recent debates between proponents of a unified cognitive science, a science that would demonstrate mental events to be either strictly identical with physical events or epiphenomena of them—people like Daniel Dennett and Patricia Churchland—and those who think that there is a philosophically irreducible difference between the physical and the mental—that is, people like Thomas Nagel and John Searle. 

But there are some areas of the academy, and of the cultural life of the English-speaking world in general, where these obvious truths about the essentially polemical nature of the intellectual life are called into question, even systematically rejected. The most striking and institutionally prominent instance of this is to be found in departments of religious studies in universities and colleges, but it is present also in theology departments, divinity schools, and the like. Anywhere, in fact, where religion is the central topic, it seems that the polemical dimensions of the intellectual life are swept under the rug, or treated as the kind of embarrassment that reasonable people ought to pretend isn’t there. If this is true in general wherever religion is studied, it is even more true where different religious traditions are studied, or where representatives of different religious traditions are brought together under the same institutional roof for conversation. Why, in such contexts, should there be a repudiation of the agon, the struggle for truth? 

One important reason has to do with the prominence in such settings of the judgment that the term “interreligious dialogue” labels the only proper mode for intercourse among religious communities. This term, now a numinous one, denotes what Michel Foucault would call a discursive formation or practice, an activity, that is, for which there is a definite institutional and theoretical place in the culture, an activity that now has a fairly lengthy history and that has produced its own bureaucratic organizations, organs of publication, and professional experts. All this means that interreligious dialogue is something already firmly in cultural place; like baseball, deconstruction, or adultery, it is a game whose rules one must understand and abide by if one is to be a proper player. It is, moreover, a discursive practice with strictly imperialistic tendencies: it wants and intends that its rules and modes of procedure should be the dominant (even the only) ones in play when the game has to do with intercourse among different religious communities.

Such dialogue is also a practice that ought to cease: it has no discernible benefits, many negative effects, and is based upon a radical misapprehension of the nature and significance of religious commitments. It is the kind of discursive practice that makes sense only in a culture without genuine awareness of its own religious and intellectual roots. It fosters a morally dubious kind of syncretism, an attitude toward the religion of the other that is strictly and precisely analogous to the attitude of those nineteenth-century British empire-builders who plundered the world and brought its treasures back to the British museum to be preserved and meditated upon by the British cultural elite of that day. When a contemporary Jesuit from Boston teaches a Buddhist mindfulness technique to his flock or an ecumenically minded Tibetan lama expropriates a Christian prayer, we have something analogous to John Ruskin’s rhapsodies about the Elgin marbles, or Henry Steele Olcott’s attempts to tell Sinhalese Buddhists what their religion was really all about. If these latter things were morally dubious, then so are their analogues today: no religious person’s beliefs and practices are proper objects for plunder and expropriation by anyone; and calling them “interreligious dialogue” doesn’t make them any more respectable. 

What, then, is the cultural place of this particular discursive practice, and what are its historical roots? Interreligious dialogue can be seen in its purest form, perhaps, in the activities of the World Council of Churches. This organization, an umbrella bureaucracy on the model of the United Nations that brings together representatives of most Protestant denominations, has as part of its monstrously complicated structure a “Sub-Unit on Dialogue with Peoples of Living Faiths and Ideologies.” The language is that of the multinational corporation or, what is the same, of the multinational aid organization. Bureaucrats from the World Health Organization or from International Chemical Industries could move happily and directly into the World Council of Churches without having to learn new methods, new ways of thinking, or indeed anything new at all except how to substitute lexical items from religious bureauspeak for those they already know. There is a Roman Catholic analogue for this in the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue, an organization that has been in place in one form or another, and with various names, since shortly after the end of the Second Vatican Council in 1965, and that took its present name in 1988. (Immediately before that it was called the “Secretariat for Non-Christians”; the change of name, if you think about it for a while, is quite revealing.) 

The purpose of these organizations, and of their local offspring and analogues, is principally to sponsor discussions, and sometimes joint action, among members of different religious communities—Buddhist, Christian, Confucian, Jewish, Hindu, and so on. The discussions at such meetings are characteristically of a single rhetorical kind and have a single effective goal. The rhetoric is always irenic, never argumentative; the goal is always understanding, never refutation. Certain topics and themes are, de facto, ruled out of court, most especially awkward questions about truth, and about the universalistic aspirations of most religious communities. As examples of the former: if what most Christians think about Jesus of Nazareth is true, then what most Muslims think about him must be false; if what most Buddhists think about the nature of human persons is true, then what most Jews think about this must be false . . . and so on. As examples of the latter: if the baptism of all human persons in the triune name is a desideratum and is alone productive of salvation, as many Christians believe (and as the Gospel of Matthew seems explicitly to claim), then it is false that the chanting of the “nam myoho range kyo” is the principle means of human salvation, as some Japanese Buddhists claim. 

Serious discussion of questions like these is ruled out in principle by those institutions that have created interreligious dialogue as a recognizable discursive formation in our culture, and also almost always ignored in Western academic institutions, which really ought to know better. The result of this systematic evisceration of religious claims is almost always the adumbrating of a set of vacuous claims upon which, it is supposed, all religious persons can agree; and such claims are usually expressed in a language and with a tone that is more appropriate to the nurture of an infant than to the intellectual challenge of an adult. 

As an example, consider the declaration of the ethical principles supposedly common to all religions promulgated at the World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago in the summer of 1993. This declaration limits itself, as given its assumptions and method of proceeding it was inevitable that it should, to claims of such vagueness and generality that it would be hard for anyone to disagree about them, but equally hard for anyone to get excited about them—much less to structure his life around them or be prepared to die for them. To say that all religious communities recognize the right of people not to be tortured, or that all religious communities support the self-determination of indigenous peoples is not very exciting: even if these claims are true (and I suspect that they are not), they bear little relation to any claim that a faithful member of any religious community would recognize as his own. Such attempts at saying things that every religious community can agree upon are about as useful to a serious Christian or a serious Buddhist as a pacifier is to anyone over the age of four. 

This kind of well-meaning but finally destructive inanity is entirely typical of what goes on under the rubric of “interreligious dialogue,” whether sponsored by the multinational religious bureaucracies or a local university. How have things come to this pass? To give a full answer to this would require a detailed and complex cultural and intellectual history, something beyond the scope of this essay. Here, however, are a few preliminary observations. 

The first is that interreligious dialogue of the kind described above has a fairly short history, and is almost exclusively a product of the postcolonialist West. If we want to mark its beginning, 1893 is as good a date as any. It was then that the first World’s Parliament of Religions took place in Chicago, an occasion of considerable importance in that it was the first time that a public event of any scale (it was part of the World’s Fair taking place in Chicago that year) had included representatives from many of the world’s religious communities and given them an opportunity to speak and be heard. Among the more prominent participants were the Anagarika Dharmapala, a Buddhist from Sri Lanka (or Ceylon, as it was then called), and Swami Vivekananda, a popularizer and exporter of the neo-Vedantin ideas of Sri Ramakrishna. 

Why did this happen when and where it did? Well, as to when, it is far from accidental that this Parliament was called together at a time when the expansionism of the Western colonial empires was drawing to a close. One hundred years ago the English were coming to realize, even if inchoately, that the sun was about to set on the empire that fifty years earlier had seemed invincible and ever-expanding. Queen Victoria, the Empress of India among many other things, was eight years from her death, but it was evident that Indians were no longer, could no longer be, simply colonial subjects: Gandhi was arriving in South Africa after completing his studies in London, and Indian independence, which stands as the very paradigm of the end of empire, was only a little more than fifty years in the future. 

In this situation, Western Christians could no longer speak from a position of unproblematic superiority: they were beginning to realize the depth and moral dubiousness of their involvement with the colonial enterprise, and to think that one way of atoning for their sins might be to give a voice to the religious other. Postcolonialist guilt, then, was and remains one of the major motivations for the development of and engagement in interreligious dialogue. Notice what this entails: postcolonialist guilt is after all a problem only for colonialists, which means, if such guilt is indeed a major motivation for interreligious dialogue, that it is likely to be only they who will be seriously interested in it. And in 1893, as now, it is almost exclusively Christians (or post-Christians) who find this activity interesting enough to sponsor and encourage it. Buddhists, Jews, and the rest will come to the table out of politeness, or with their own quite different agendas, but they’re not really interested. 

As for the question of why interreligious dialogue should have had its first major public outing in the United States, and why it has flourished here more than in any other country since, this is slightly more complicated. After all, the United States in 1893 was not at the end of a period of empire-building, but rather at the beginning. There are other factors in play in the specifically American situation. The United States is the country where, more than any other, the ideal of a religiously tolerant political order has been enshrined in a constitution, and interpreted by the judiciary, in such a way as to attempt a consistent separation between church and state. Whatever one thinks about the merits of this, it is beyond doubt that one of the effects of this attempt has been the radical privatization of religion. For most Americans, religious belief and practice have become a matter of private preference, something whose importance may be great for the individual but about which it is bad taste to argue and even worse taste to appeal to as a matter of import for the shaping of public policy. 

My own experience in teaching religion and theology to middle- and upper-middle-class undergraduates and graduate students in America for the past decade or so certainly suggests that this way of thinking about religion fits neatly with a strong tendency toward the kind of knee-jerk relativism that is also widespread among those in the same social strata. For most Americans, religion is probably more like golf or football than anything else: an activity that happens mostly on the weekends, that may arouse strong passions, but that is very much a matter of personal taste. Americans are notoriously more religiously observant and active than the inhabitants of any other Western democracy—much more, for example, than those of my native England; but they are, for the most part, observant in ways that betray a deep misunderstanding of what religious commitment is and what it demands, a misunderstanding that parallels exactly that which is evident in the practice of interreligious dialogue. 

What goes on under the aegis of the World Council of Churches’ Sub-Unit on Dialogue with Peoples of Living Faiths and Ideologies parallels in fascinating ways what goes on in American public elementary school Christmas celebrations. Both my children are in such a school, and the songs sung at the Christmas celebrations in their school provide a striking example of the American situation. Clearly, traditional Christmas carols can’t be sung (there’s a large university near where I live that attracts graduate students from all over the world, as well as a substantial local Jewish community, and probably not more than 60 or 70 percent of the children at the school are from even nominally Christian households), so most of the singing is of songs of the saccharine-secular genre—songs like “White Christmas.” But there are also some attempts at deploying religious imagery in an inclusive rather than a tradition-specific way, most of them very heavy-handed. My personal favorite is a song whose dirge-like chorus includes the refrain “Candles of Hanukkah, Candles of Christmas.” This is guaranteed, I think, to offend both serious and thoughtful Jews and serious and thoughtful Christians, and to either exclude or upset serious Muslims, Buddhists, or whatever. Its other inevitable effect is to foster and nurture the messages that this culture already sends about religious commitments: since they’re really all the same, it doesn’t matter which you have. 

I have suggested, first, that polemical argument and confrontation are integral and essential to the intellectual life, and that any attempt systematically to remove them from that life is dangerous and, in the end, incoherent. Second, what goes for the intellectual life goes also for the religious life. Third, what goes for the intellectual life in general, and for the religious life in particular, ought to be evident also in the interactions among different religious communities, that here, too, serious and argumentative engagement ought to be a part of the enterprise. And fourth, the cultural practice that we call “interreligious dialogue” militates against precisely such engagements and, in so doing, trivializes and eviscerates religious commitments and practices. More must now be said about why, conceptually, it is important to see that religious commitment involves making serious claims as to the nature of things, what the setting of human life is like, as well as serious claims as to how human persons should behave in that setting. 

In arguing against the possibility of attaining to a neutral standpoint on matters of concern to religious persons, one begins with the axiom that all human activity—and so, by extension, all scholarly activity, all religious activity, and all interaction among serious religious persons—both implies and evinces a commitment to some particular metaphysic, some view as to the way things are and as to how human activity should proceed in that context. From this axiom it follows that no human activity (including, again, all scholarly activity, all religious activity, and all interaction among serious religious persons) can be neutral with regard to any particular metaphysic. It should be obvious why: if all human activities imply some particular metaphysic, and every metaphysic contains or implies some set of views as to how things are and how human life should go on, then clearly a position of neutrality on metaphysical questions is a theoretical impossibility. Thus any human activity that presents itself as being metaphysically neutral is guilty at best of pretense and at worst of deceit. Now, it is characteristic of interreligious dialogue that those who provide the institutional context for it typically disallow, both rhetorically and actually, the thematization of the metaphysical understandings that in fact inform the practices of all participants in it. This is an instance of what I meant by pretense or deceit. A similar conclusion follows for those within academic institutions who claim to study religion from a metaphysically neutral standpoint: they don’t because they can’t, and it would be far better to acknowledge this publicly and explicitly than to sweep it under the rug. Practitioners of both the academic study of religion and of interreligious dialogue are, then, just metaphysicians who don’t know themselves as such; or (worse) metaphysicians who do know themselves but haven’t the courage of their convictions. 

It is an intellectual virtue to be as self-conscious as possible about the metaphysical commitments implied and evinced by one’s own intellectual activity, and to make them, to the extent possible, a public and overt part of the products of that activity. So, for instance, if it is not clear to the readers of my work that my writing is done by an Episcopalian Christian, I will have failed to practice this virtue—which, of course, includes my making clear at which points the materials I study or engage seem to me false, noxious, or incomplete; just as it includes my making clear when and in what ways it seems to me that the materials I engage are true, have taught me something I didn’t know before, or may be of use to me and my community in its search to apprehend and incarnate the gospel. Insisting upon this definition of virtue would immediately have enormous benefits and would immediately transform the ways in which serious religious persons interact with one another, as well as the ways in which the scholarly study of religion is carried on. It would also, I hope, go some way toward remedying the privatization and trivialization of religious commitment that is so endemic to both American culture in general and to academic institutions in particular. 

For those who have them, religious commitments are the most important thing there is, and they cannot but enter explicitly into everything that their possessors do. If, indeed, the word “religion” signifies anything at all, then we should take its most salient characteristic to be the provision of a complete and unsurpassable context for everything that a religious person does, thinks, and is. Eating dinner isn’t like this; making love isn’t like this; national identity isn’t, for most of us, like this: all these are mere parts of our identity, elements to be placed in a larger and more encompassing context. But our religion, if we have one, is precisely that which cannot be so encompassed: it provides a context for, and an explanation of, everything else about us, and indeed for everything period. There is no larger context, no frame for the understanding of my religion that encompasses it: it can only encompass, it cannot be encompassed; it cannot be seen as an instance of something, but only as the context within which all instances of things occur. This is what makes religious commitments so interesting, and so dangerous. To treat them as though they were less serious and less interesting than this is to misunderstand and mistreat them, as interreligious dialogue and much of the academic study of religion typically do. If this view of religion is right, then it follows that as a scholar and a religious person I must be explicit about the kinds of religious commitments I have and the ways in which they enter into my intellectual activity. 

How, then, should interactions among religious communities proceed? 

Christians, specifically, ought to recover and use a word with an important lineage in Christian theology, a word that captures much of what I have been arguing for. The word is “apologetics.” Its meaning in traditional use has nothing to do with the contemporary sense of the verb “to apologize,” denoting instead reasoned argument in defense of what one takes to be true against views that one takes to be false—against, that is, potential or actual challengers to one’s own beliefs. It is a term historically associated with argument in support of specifically religious claims, but it is a more widely applicable intellectual virtue. Religious communities—or at least some of their members—have both a moral and intellectual duty to engage in polemics. That is, they are under both ethical and epistemic obligations to argue for the truth of what they take themselves to believe when they are faced with religious others who appear to believe something different and to act differently based upon such difference in belief. 

Suppose, to make this abstraction concrete, that I, as a member of a particular religious community—in my case, as I have said, the communion of Anglican Christians—find myself in contact with a Gelukpa Tibetan Buddhist who, so far as I can tell, believes and teaches things that I think are incompatible with what I believe and teach. Suppose further that the incompatibilities appear to me not superficial and uninteresting but profound and deep-going. Suppose still further that my interlocutor and I are in a situation in which neither is offering the other any threat of physical violence. In such a circumstance, I would be failing in my ethical and intellectual duties if I did not engage my interlocutor, with seriousness and passion, as to the truth of what he teaches. I would be failing ethically because I take my beliefs to be not merely true, but of profound importance for all human persons. This is because they are religious beliefs, and so are properly universal in their scope. To pretend, out of politeness or fear, that my Buddhist interlocutor does not need to know about beliefs that are, so far as I can tell, both true and of vital importance to his eternal well-being would be a dramatic kind of moral failure: analogous to refusing the offer of help and correction to a person whose beliefs and practices appear to be leading him straight into dire physical danger. I must, therefore, if I am to behave with moral integrity, engage my interlocutor. 

And in addition to the moral argument for the necessity of interreligious apologetics, there is also a strictly intellectual one, having to do with my epistemic duties. If I take my religious beliefs to be both properly universal in scope and properly salvific in effect, and it comes to seem to me (as in fact it does) that my Buddhist interlocutor has beliefs that he also takes to be properly universal in scope and properly salvific in effect, and that his beliefs are not compatible with mine, then his beliefs—call them, for the sake of brevity, alien religious claims, recognizing that my beliefs are, of course, alien to him—act as potential defeators to mine. They, if they are true, appear to make mine false in at least some respects—as mine in turn do them. In such a situation one cannot remain epistemically justified in having the beliefs one has without engaging the alien claims as potential defeators and seeing, to the best of one’s ability, whether they do in fact defeat. My interlocutor, of course, is under the same intellectual duty as I. This purely intellectual argument applies much more broadly, of course, than simply to matters religious; but it applies to them also. 

Thus in the situation I have sketched, if I am to preserve ethical and epistemic respectability, I am required to engage in interreligious apologetics. But notice a couple of things about this argument. It is couched entirely in terms of how things seem to the participants in the potential apologetical engagement. The argument doesn’t require that the beliefs held by the people involved actually be incompatible one with another; it requires only that this seem to them to be the case. So it might seem to me that my Buddhist interlocutor has crazed views about impermanence, the transience of all things, and the absence of any enduring principle that constitutes the identity of human persons; while I have more sensible metaphysical views that require a substance-based ontology and a theory as to what constitutes human persons that permits them to endure through time. But in fact the incompatibility between us need not be actual. It might turn out, for instance, that after an apologetical engagement has begun—I might offer my Buddhist interlocutor what I take to be six conclusive arguments, say, as to why he should abandon his view that all existents are impermanent—I discover that the incompatibility that had seemed to me so profound, deep-going, and unavoidable turns out to be merely apparent. The differences, perhaps, were rhetorical rather than real, and the conclusion of our debate is that we learn that we are fundamentally at one on important metaphysical questions. Or, alternatively (and more likely in this case), we discover as our debate progresses that our differences are even more important and thoroughgoing than we first thought. 

The important points that flow from this are two. The first is that interreligious polemics, in addition to the moral and intellectual benefits already mentioned, is a heuristic tool of very great power. It leads, or it may lead, to important discoveries about the inner logic of religious belief-systems. By trying to disprove Buddhist metaphysics and having kind Buddhist friends argue back, I might, for instance, have come to understand the subject much better than I otherwise would have. They may have shown me that I don’t really understand the position I’m arguing against; or they may have offered me arguments in support of their position to which I could not find an answer. They may have shown me, by their responses, that what I had taken to be a profound and important disagreement on fundamental matters is really no such thing. There would have been no other way I could have discovered these things—certainly not by engaging in the pallid and platitudinous mutual congratulation that usually goes on under the rubric of interreligious dialogue. This learning process goes in the other direction as well: I am likely to learn a great deal about the inner logic and systematic connections among my own religious beliefs by subjecting them to a polemical engagement, things, again, that I could learn in no other way. 

Secondly, my understanding of interreligious polemics is not predicated, as some traditional understandings have been, on an assumption of unrevisability and indefeasibility. I do not, that is, assume from the outset that what I and my religious community take to be true, that around which we structure our lives and hopes, is necessarily and unrevisably so. I may be wrong, in small things and in large, and a good apologetical engagement may show me that I am. This is an important qualification for a number of reasons, most obviously that if one of the justifications for engagement in interreligious polemics is that it is heuristically valuable (as are its analogues in other dimensions of the intellectual life), then obviously revision, alteration, and abandonment of passionately held religious views must be a possibility. It should be said, though, that very often the possibility of revision will not be a lively one, and this too is perfectly appropriate. Catharine MacKinnon, to return to one of the examples mentioned earlier, is extremely unlikely to become a conservative Baptist as a result of apologetical engagement with Billy Graham; and I am rather unlikely to decide that I have no mental life and that disembodied existence is not a possibility for me as a result of polemical engagement with Patricia Churchland. But both these things are possibilities, and must be self-consciously kept in mind as possibilities by serious participants in interreligious polemics. 

There is a methodological corollary to the theoretical point about defeasibility. It is that interreligious polemics, properly understood, cannot use a community-specific self-guaranteeing authority-source as a proper tool of debate. If I want to argue with my Gelukpa Buddhist friends, it is of no use to quote the Bible to them as an authoritative text, and hope to get anywhere thereby—not, at least, unless I’m prepared to offer a prior and independent argument as to why the Bible should be regarded as an authoritative text. To generalize this point, we should say that a properly constituted interreligious polemic should deploy as methods of argument and proof only tools that are recognized as authoritative and demonstrative by both sides. This will create difficulties and constraints at times, but these constraints, too, have their payoff. 

In conclusion, three caveats. The first has to do with the constraints that should be placed upon interreligious polemic. Such polemic is proper, morally speaking, only in situations where no other threats are present. That is, if one’s interlocutor is being threatened with violence, torture, or death at the same time as he is being confronted with a polemical argument, and if the outcome of the latter determines whether he is killed, tortured, forcibly converted, or whatever (this was, of course, the case for many Jews in medieval Europe), then it is exceedingly doubtful that the polemic is morally proper. A similar case can be made in situations where interreligious polemic is accompanied by large-scale political or economic imperialism, as may have been the case in India when Christian missionaries began polemically to engage Brahman intellectuals. This is a more complex scenario, though, because the extent and nature of the complicity between representatives of religious communities and expansionist colonial powers is often hard to assess, and conclusions about it must of necessity be context-specific. This case is meant only to illustrate that I am not arguing that interreligious polemic is always and everywhere the best or only appropriate mode of interreligious conversation. 

The second caveat has to do with just who ought to practice interreligious polemics. The reader might have been led to think that all seriously religious persons ought never to be doing anything else. But this is not what is intended. Communities as a whole may have duties that are not incumbent upon all of their members. This is obvious, for instance, in the case of nations: the nation as a whole has a duty to provide a transportation system and educational institutions for its citizens, but it is not the case that each citizen has a duty to be involved in such provision. Similarly for religious communities. The duty to engage in polemics is one that will typically bind a community and will, consequently, bind only some of its members. Just which members are so bound will depend upon variables specific to particular communities—such things as the authority structures in place, or the function of representative intellectuals. But it would obviously be as silly to say that all religious persons are bound by a duty to engage in polemics as it would be to say that all Jews are bound by a duty to become rabbis. 

The third caveat is specific to Christians, and has to do with the singular nature of the relations between Christians and Jews. The phrase interreligious dialogue has, since the 1960s, largely suggested for most Christians and most Jews discussions between representatives of their respective traditions, and only incidentally discussions between either and representatives of Islamic or Hindu or Buddhist communities. There are obvious and important historical reasons for this, reasons that stretch from the decision made by Christians in the first century of our history that circumcision and observance of the law were not necessary for entry into the Christian community, to the tragedy of the Holocaust in our own time. That most Christians have been anti-Semitic throughout this long history is no longer news, and is hardly controversial (though the nature of the connections between our traditional anti-Semitism and our Christian faith is a matter for debate and further clarification). But these historical connections render decisions by Christians and Jews as to how best to interact with one another—and so also decisions as to the proper uses of polemic—extremely delicate. General principles cannot, in my opinion, be laid down at this stage of the (still young) Jewish-Christian dialogue; but when polemic is undertaken in such dialogues, it must always be done in careful and clear awareness of the unpleasant uses to which such polemics have often been put by Christians in the past.

Bearing this in mind, we can nevertheless see that being religious entails having intellectual commitments whose scope is universal; that the institutionally dominant modes under which interaction among serious religious persons now occurs, both within the academy and outside it, largely prevents the airing of intellectual differences, and so inevitably trivializes religious commitments; and that if this distressing situation is to be remedied, the rehabilitation of interreligious polemics is essential. 

Paul J. Griffiths teaches in the Divinity School and the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago.

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