The following is a short personal reflection written for a course on inter-faith dialogue with Prof. Jacob Sherman.
“Any interreligious and interhuman dialogue, any exchange among cultures,” writes Panikkar, “has to be preceded by an intrareligious and intrahuman dialogue, an internal conversation within the person” (p. 310, 1979). My personal interest in religion, broadly construed to include both its theological and practical dimensions, arises out of polarized desires: one the one hand, I long to participate in an enduring community’s celebration and worship of divine reality; on the other hand, I remain unsatisfied by beliefs and practices that do not spring from the unique voice of divinity within me. I call these desires polar not because they are necessarily mutually exclusive, but because a certain tension arises in me whenever I attempt to sync up outward observance with inward contemplation. My desire for integration into a religious community seems to contradict my desire for an inward intimacy with the divine. Whether this tension is a mere appearance, or the result of an ontological rift between self and other, is an issue I hope to explore in the course of the short meditation that follows.
Though I cannot fully identify with any religious culture in particular, the sacred texts and esoteric treatises emerging from several traditions continue to offer me guidance on my individual path. I sometimes use the cliché “spiritual but not religious” to describe myself, but this never feels quite right, since religion in general does not strike me as an essentially dogmatic and so inauthentic response to Spirit. In fact, what calls me to the religious life is precisely the unwavering commitment that it entails. Spirituality absent a religious commitment may leave more room for autonomy and freedom, but what if a genuine relation to Spirit requires submitting to the will of something other than myself?
Of course, there is no religion “in general.” There is a vast array of cultural responses to what for now can be called “Spirit.” But even to say the diversity of religions represent responses to the same “Spirit,” or unified underlying reality, underestimates the extent to which each tradition draws from its own sources in pursuit of its own ends. How am I to decipher which tradition represents an authority worth submitting to if so many different options for belief exist amongst which to choose from? This uncertainty leads me back to my own individual autonomy, but there I find only the dizzying freedom of an “I” unmoored from any established norms or worldviews. Independent of the spiritual desires of other people, I am no longer sure what it is that I myself am after, or even what it might mean to be a self in the first place. No matter which way I turn, toward authority or autonomy, I end up confused. Is there a middle path?
Because I need to call it something, I’ll continue to refer to “Spirit” as the underlying reality drawing me to religious dialogue. Whether it is at work in the space between myself and others, or that between me in relation to myself, Spirit dynamically binds together that which may appear separate. Or at least this presupposition is the ground out of which my faith in a divine reality grows and is nourished. Though I do not know if Christianity is truer than Buddhism, or Mohamed more holy than Moses, I have faith that all human beings ultimately belong to the same universe. This faith implies that failures to communicate across cultures or between religious traditions must not be due to metaphysical discord in the cosmos itself, but rather an epistemic misunderstanding or confusion of practical contexts. In other words, it is not what each tradition is trying to know and to become that differs, but how they come to know and become it. Instead of assuming that each religion has its own unique ends, perhaps it is more fruitful to interpret diversity as the inevitable result of finite creatures attempting to know and love an infinitely creative Spirit.
The tension I experience between the desire to seek refuge in a religious tradition and the desire to intuit the divine mystery afresh within myself is unavoidable if Spirit is the relation between beings, rather than a being among beings. Religious traditions may undoubtedly help to support and sustain this relation, but they can just as easy strangle it. Spirit is grander than can be contained by the categories of any public religion or private spirituality. Its source is deeper than either. What if the very possibility of communication between beings (including that between myself and my own being) rests upon the reality of Spirit? Panikkar writes of “intrahuman” dialogue alongside “intrareligious” dialogue, which is a reflection of his cosmotheandric intuition of the interpenetration of the human, the universe, and the divine. If such interpenetration is taken to be metaphysically basic, then reality itself exists in a state of super-position between the personal, interpersonal, and transpersonal. The diversity of perspectives making interreligious dialogue necessary is then a reflection of the creative instability of Spirit at an ontological level, where as Panikkar says “everything is ultimate mediation, or rather communion” (p. 240, 1996). Each perspective on divinity exists only by virtue of its relation to the others, and it is in this tension of relation that Spirit brings forth the world anew in each moment (paying due respect to the accumulated wisdom of Its past incarnations in the process, of course).
But how is it that I am capable of taking such a perspective on the religious practices of others? Upon what sacred ground do I stand in order to make such metaphysical pronouncements? Is there some post-religious point of view capable of reconciling the teachings of all the traditions of the world? I can only have faith in this possibility, because there is, admittedly, no such point of view available to contemporary humanity (at least not one that all the religions might participate in affirming). The whole effort of interreligious dialogue must, in the end, be guided by a similar faith. The hope is that reality is ultimately communicable: both that Being itself opens intelligibly to beings, and that beings open intelligibly to other beings; and that, though the truth of reality has not yet been and may never be completely conveyed (at least between beings, if not between Being and being), human beings may nevertheless continue to asymptotically approach the universal translatability of their diverse points of view through sincere cross-cultural and interpersonal engagement.
The translatability of one culture’s relation to Spirit into another’s is never without remainder or distortion, just as a spoken sentence is never identical to the vague feeling which precedes its articulation. But in the act of attempting to communicate, and especially after having done so, the original feeling is itself transformed. It moves into an interpretive field of far greater context and dexterity, gathering greater self-understanding along the way. Translations are expressive trials where initially offensive (even if unintentional) renderings of the other meet resistance until, eventually, conversation becomes constructive and mutually revelatory. The participants in the dialogue begin to learn something, not only about each other, but also about themselves. It is not that the interior space of a foreign tradition becomes fully transparent, but that each comes to inhabit a newly enacted common interiority, a “third culture” or novel way of being human in relation to each other and to Spirit. No doubt these interior spaces will be tenuous at first, since they lack the sedimented historical matrix of symbolism and ritual that protects each of the world’s great wisdom traditions from dissolution in the sands of time. But perhaps what is needed for inter- and intrahuman dialogue is more a way of being than an ideological space to inhabit or position oneself within. This way of being would acknowledge the ontological role of mediation: that all beings are always already interbeings. It is only Being itself, or Spirit, that provides for their diversity and individuality. Spirit is infinite, and finitude its way of entering into dialogue with itself. Strictly among themselves, beings are radically open to mutual influence and transformation. But it is only through their relation to divinity that they gather themselves into a unity, be it a unity of self or community.
This is the faith that guides my daily routines and daring adventures among others. It is an open-ended faith, a path, and not a place of refuge. I believe this openness is not vague and ambiguous, but a clear reflection of the transitional nature of our times. We do not know what religious forms will emerge in the coming decades to lead our increasingly interconnected planet forward, but like Diana Eck, I am convinced that “Laying the foundations for one world is the most important task of our time” (p. 30, 1985).
1. Eck, Diana. 1985. Minutes, Sixth Meeting of the Working Group of Dialogue with People of Living Faiths. Geneva: World Council of Churches.
2. Panikkar, Raimon.
—1979. Myth, Faith, and Hermeneutics: Cross-Cultural Studies. New York: Paulist Press.
—1996. “A Self-Critical Dialogue”. In The Intercultural Challenge of Raimon Panikkar, ed. Joseph Prabhu. New York: Orbis Books.
 I do not want to rule out the possibility of revelation, which some traditions claim to be the bearers of.