The Language of Interfaith: Models

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about “The Language of Interfaith: Attitudes,” about Raimon Panikkar and his survey of the attitudes that people bring to interreligious dialogue. After outlining the fundamental perspectives, Panikkar goes on to discuss several metaphors by which we imagine the relationships among different religious ways. What follows is the briefest of summaries; he elaborates extensively on each of these in his book The Intrareligious Dialogue (Paulist Press 1999).

Ways to the Mountain Peak (Geographical Model)
“We’re all heading to the same destination; we’re just taking different paths to get there.” This first is a common way to understand the diversity of religious life. Depending on our particular way up the mountain, what we see and how we climb may differ. Panikkar points out that at the most basic levels, the foothills, as it were, the paths are widely separate and may be hidden from one another. As we progress more along the journey, however, we may find our ways converging more and more. And, ultimately, each of us must walk our own path.

The Rainbow (Physical Model)
Just as pure white light refracts into the infinite colors of the rainbow, each shading gradually into the next, human experience manifests itself in a spectrum of traditions, each distinct, and yet not having completely sharp, clear edges of division. And each is a manifestation of the whole; a portion of the full reality or true white light.

The Topological Invariant (Geometrical Model)
A more abstract and complex model, this approach would see religious traditions like geometric figures that seem to be quite unconnected to each other, but which each display a deep consistency that is shared across the differences. “Religious variety would appear here not so much as a bountifully colored universe as different appearances of an inner structure detectable only in a deeper intuition, be this called mystical or scientific” (p. 18).

Language (Anthropological Model)
We might consider each religion like a language, a language that contains the necessary elements to express what it considers important. Like human language, religious traditions follow definite structures, have a range of vocabulary, and are more or less adaptable to new realities as they come along, sometimes borrowing from another tradition, or developing new forms and understandings. And, like languages, it is not possible to “translate” from one tradition to another perfectly. The worldview, modes of expression, and context of experience in one tradition cannot be fully communicated in the language of another.

Silence (Mystical Model)
Panikkar suggests that this last may not be a complete model, but rather “a canvas on which other models can be better situated” (p. 22). Silence is prior to any of our words, and words are heard only against the background of silence. This is the meeting point for mystics of all traditions. It reminds us that our words are not the reality, and, though there is value and necessity in entering into the religious dialogue with the words supplied by our histories and our experience, we must continue to hold our images lightly.

Neither these attitudes nor models are mutually exclusive. At one time or another, we may find ourselves leading toward one framework of conversation or another. Panikkar’s outline helps us to orient ourselves as we travel the interfaith journey together.

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