Raimon Panikkar was born in 1918 into Catholic/Christian and Hindu religious traditions, and has written extensively on the interfaith encounter. I have previously quoted his “Sermon on the Mount for Interreligious Dialogue,” which is included in more developed form in his book The Intrareligious Dialogue (Paulist Press 1999).
In the first chapter of that book, “The Rhetoric of the Dialogue,” Pannikar maps five attitudes and five models that have arisen in interreligious dialogue. Even as we talk with each other, we need to reflect on the language and images that we use and the attitudes they express.
A believer is a believer because they consider what they believe to be true, and “the claim to truth has a certain built-in claim to exclusivity.” So it is no wonder that many religions approach others from the attitude of exclusivity. My defense of my tradition is not merely a defense of my own perspective; it is a defense of God or reality. Such an attitude carries obvious dangers- not only of intolerance or even violence with those who differ, but the danger of personal inflation and hubris. In a rapidly shrinking world, it is harder and harder to maintain that I alone have a monopoly on truth.
If I acknowledge that others may have some insight into truth as well, I might adopt an attitude of inclusivity. Yes, others have pieces of the truth in their traditions, but it is my tradition that expresses the complete and comprehensive view. Again, one faces the problem of pride- my tradition is the superior one; all others are relative to my own.
Perhaps, then, our different religious traditions, while taking very different paths, are all equally valid in that they all aim toward a common goal. An attitude of parallelism allows me to follow my own path faithfully, while allowing others to follow different paths. Such an attitude allows for tolerance and respect, but it can assume that we have nothing to learn from each other. If each path is separate, we have no reason to encounter one another. It allows, as Panikkar says, “growth but not mutation.”
A fourth possibility is interpenetration. As we live side by side with each other, we begin to recognize that we are inevitably connected. Our traditions interreact with each other: we deepen our understandings of ourselves in contrast to the other; we learn from each other in ways that can strengthen and complement our own tradition. As Panikkar puts it: “It looks as if today we are all intertwined and that without these particular religious links my own religion would be incomprehensible for me and even impossible.” On the other hand, there remains the very real question as to how such interpenetration actually works. How do we identify the “pure” or “unmodified” form of the tradition so as to see how contact with another has changed it?
Pannikar suggests that the fifth attitude, pluralism, offers a way forward between an undiscriminating unity and an unrelated diversity. Pluralism recognizes the limits of all human experience and refuses to absolutize any theoretical system. By keeping dialogue open, an attitude of pluralism allows us to deal with human life and experience as it is- and acknowledge that conflicts and debates among religious traditions have not resulted in agreement. The path to relationship, then, must lie not in a common knowledge or agreed-upon understanding, but in openness to compassion and loving awareness.
- The Intrareligious Dialogue by Ramon Panikkar (Amazon)