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Encounter of Religions in the Context of World Civilization

Autor:Niewiadomski Jozef
Abstrakt:Today's dreams of the "global village" tend to disguise how conflikt-ridden human societies are and they reduce the encounters of different religions and cultures to an unproblematic side-by-side in an "anything-goes-mentality". Is fundamentalism an viable alternative to this cultural blind alley? Certainly not! A recollection of the Jewish-Christian tradition and its logic of dramatic -while at the same time non-violent - struggle für truth ist an indispensable hermeneutic prerequisite for the encounter of different religions in the "global village".
Publiziert in:Dialog and Universalism. Metaphilosophy as the Wisdom of Science, Art, and Life. Vol.12. No. 6-7 (108-109) 2002, 49-56.



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It might sound like a commonplace for today's theological discussion, when at the outset of these reflections, I am about to present world civilization as the normative framework for the encounter of the different religions. Modern means of transportation, migration of people, radio and television broadcasting, and last not least the wars have indeed changed our world into "a global village". (1) Yet, how about this world civilization? Is it only a neutral space, in which diverse religious traditions should dare to encounter each other?

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Putting it in a Girardian way of thinking(2): already in the past this villages has been anything but a neutral space, free of any conflicts, whose inhabitants would have been able to meet with each other; the often quoted romantic peacefulness has been accomplished due to innumerable scapegoats and obfuscations rather than due to the conscious acts of reconciliation of its citizens. The complexity of technological processes and market laws, and not least the mediating structure of today's communication processes, have hardly changed anything with regard to such archaic basic constellations. Rather the opposite is the case: They do indeed increase the tendency to engage in conflicts and they are responsible that our metaphor of the "global village" finally loses the harmlessness it is said to possess. Thanks to the scientistic-technological progress this "global village" turns more and more into a "mega-machine" with quasi-religious characteristics - as Jean Pierre Dupuy (3) would say it -: Although produced by men, it presents itself particularly in its global aspects to these very men as something given; simple and complex, frightening and bestowing blessings at the same time: a mysterium tremendum et fascinosum! This world civilization might aim at a homogeneous and supposedly peaceable realm for experiences. Yet, such a peaceable state, is it really free of deceits, concealments and scapegoats?

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Even if this world civilization builds upon homogeneous experiences which stem from technology, free market enterprises, and the media, it is not possible to understand it in static terms: mimesis, rivalry and the striving for hegemony, all of which are inherent to the dimensions mentioned, put the well-thought-out theses about the "end of history" (Fukuyama) onto those bookshelves that contain the works with the shortest possible life-span. Dramatic confrontations of "claims on truth and salvation" in the broadest sense of the term show this "one world" as a process interconnected in manifold ways, again and again in danger. Its potential for conflicts again and again is suppressed and obscured. In addition to this in our present times it gains threatening dimensions without any bounds, when viewed in the context of the actually given political option of the self-destruction of human civilization, which would mean a man-made "end of history". Fear of common decline, however, also mobilizes the mechanisms of suppression and concealment. Instead of facing the fact that this techno-scientistic world civilization is inherently loaded with conflict, instead of enduring this burden and, if possible, trying to break up its power, the ordinary citizens of this "global village" too often fall back onto the "archaic" patterns of satisfaction: the strategy of simple, eye-washing answers, searching for those who are "guilty" for catastrophes and failures, perpetuating the restless hunt for scapegoats. All that represents the backside of the supposed lack of problems and the peacefulness of this "one world".

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The one strategy among such kinds of strategies of accusation which functions best is the criticism of totalitarian features of traditional religiosity. It is precisely the monotheism of the major religions and their claim to salvation that become the stumbling block of the supposedly a-religious public of our "global village". Automatically it is taken as one of the main causes of dissension. Reducing its power is looked upon as reducing conflicts. Too often this logic draws its legitimacy from the European experience of the religious wars. In order to survive at that time, Europe gave up all claims to a political articulation of controversial religious beliefs, of which it was convinced that there was no salvation anywhere beyond them, on the level of ordinary politics. The average contemporary, being critical of religion, does not give up his or her own claims; by way of moralizing he or she accuses religious claims to salvation, which have long become second-rank for him or her, as presumptuous, while at the least not giving any account of the potential for conflict inherent his or her own claims of and exclusions from salvation. Thus, this critical attitude towards religion first of all represents part of the strategy of concealment; traditional religion and its claims have long become a scapegoat in the "global village".

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The quarrel about salvation, which has become important for our world civilization, is fought at different places. Let us only mention two examples here. The most important area for the query for a successful design of life in the context of our "global village" is provided by the market and its characteristics. The soteriology of the supermarket defines the boundaries of economic, political, cultural, and religious - in a more narrow sense of the word - pluralism. Yet it also suggests the illusion that every community and every individual can reach their own self-defined level of happiness. However, it closes our eyes to the violence of the logic of the market itself and to the fact, that this market has long since taken over the function of a supra-religion. Within its own framework, the market allows for a lot of variations; it is only when alternatives to the logic of the market itself want to assert their right of existence that the market deems them unbearable and refuses them this right. The radical nature of the confessional statement, "Extra ecclesiam nulla salus", has therefore not vanished, it simply shifted its focus somewhere else, so that it now runs: "Extra mercatum nulla salus".

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Secondly: Beginning with the second half of the century, the independent media (especially electronic media) successfully claim for themselves a position that can be compared to the claim of the major religions. Not only do they interpret the world and human life and thus form the source of information; they also construct this life itself and they define the border-lines of reality. Thus, they have turned into an institution that provides with meaning, an institution that can lend the supra-religion of the market its hand without any difficulty. The confessional statement: "Extra mercatum nulla salus" met its twin brother "Extra media nulla salus" in the "global village" of the world civilization. Television has became the first worldwide Religion, Video the ritual for the moderns.(4)

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As was said in the beginning, if it is world-civilization and not the personal will of the subjects of faith and their responsibility which enforces today's and tomorrow's encounter of the major religions with one another, then hermeneutical reflection about the manner, the goal, and possible results of this encounter must not suppress thoughts of the following and of a similar kind. For: It is the "mega-machine" of modern-day world-civilization, its demands and its strategies of self-concealment, and not the traditional demands claimed by the religions still open for interpretation that constitutes the actual potential for conflict at the start of the modern inter-faith dialogue. A starting point of such a kind must not be ignored, neither by religious communities in general nor by theology in particular. Otherwise, there is a great temptation to mix up the claim of the religions, which needs to be clarified in dialogue, with the claim of world-civilization. That would amount to subjecting God's truth to the truth of the "mega-machine".

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The extreme attitudes in religious encounter, which are predominant today and which can quickly be narrowed to their basic concepts, do not have the power to expose this confusion.

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First of all, this holds true for the kind of religiosity that seems to self-regulate spontaneously and presents itself as relativistic with regard to the query for truth: the religiosity of the "anything goes". This kind of religiosity owes more to the hermeneutical framework of the supermarket, than to one of the existing religious traditions. The melting pot of the supermarket mixes the traditional religions into a faceless "divine stew", in which everything is true "somehow", and it assigns them a guaranteed - yet limited - shelf-space.

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However, an attitude which on the one hand programmatically rejects relativism - like the pluralists (W. Cantwell Smith, John Hick, Paul Knitter, Raimon Panikkar, Leonard Swidler)(5) - yet on the other hand only relies on group-related plausibility and the "love-value" of its own tradition in the query for truth, so that it is free from any conflict, also has no power to reveal the mechanism of the "mega machine": "The Cantwell Smiths and Hicks of this world are seemingly a new kind of subject, one that is 'universal' or 'global' in the way that the McDonald's hamburger has become the 'universal' or 'global' food." (6)

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Something similar holds true for the opposite extreme. Fundamentalist attitudes move the idea of the radical exclusiveness and truth of one's own tradition into the center. They also reject any interfaith-dialogue. Yet they are not able to resist the totalitarian claim of the "mega-machine" and of the "global village". On the contrary: the flat, fundamentalist rejection of the hermeneutics of the melting pot is integrated by the global world-civilization without any problems: fundamentalist attitudes are assigned their unique place as "religious Galapagos-islands". They first serve to quasi enrich the museum of "supermarket of the global village" with a special curiosity. But not only this. If one presupposes "the world has turned into a village" as the imperative that structures our public consciousness, then one can indeed gain a positive, integrative power that structures our daily perception of the queer concept of fundamentalism spreading even worldwide. The assumption of a world-wide fundamentalism allows us (not only those watching TV on Saturday night) to categorize these strange social and cultural phenomena, and by doing so to understand them a bit. With the help of these conceptual instruments one thinks to have finally understood everything, everything that happens in Iran or Iraq, in Algeria or be it in Pakistan or Afganistan. That is the only way to explain the incessant interest of the mass media in the very concept of fundamentalism; it preserves for them the illusion of one world and it does this in a twofold way. On the one side, everything that cannot be comprehended is understood in terms of analogies; on the other side, everything that is contradictory is reduced to a simple scheme, which makes the lives of all of us so comfortable: one only needs to find the one "guilty" for the present situation; discovering a fundamentalist group or a terrorist commando resolves all problems. In our socio-political language since the end of the 70-ties, "fundamentalism" has developed into one of the many "black boxes", in which we can locate everything that threatens the identity of the one "global village" (and even the scientifically normed use of language is not totally immune against this).

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For these and similar reasons the normative framework for the encounter of religions must not be gained solely from the claims valid in world-civilization; it is also the religious traditions themselves that have to give their constitutive impact for it in a responsible way. It is only in this way that, on the one hand, the demands of the religions - and with them also the truth of the living God - can become more precise in the encounter and in the confrontation; and, on the other hand, that the contradictory problems of world-civilization itself can be reflected upon, and the conflicts resulting from these contradictions can bit by bit be dealt with.

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For the Judaeo-Christian tradition situating the encounter in that manner does not present anything new; the encounter and discussion with other claims to truth and salvation in the comprehensive sense of the word is nothing additional to it; rather it belongs to the very essence of the process of revelation. In the past this encounter most of the time has happened by force: by military confrontations. The Jewish tradition's hermeneutical framework has definitely - though paradoxically - been advanced and renewed through its military defeats. This tradition and its developments were neither simply accepted nor wholly rejected, but absorbed in a transformative process driven by the light of history. Neither dialogue - aimed at decreasing conflict -, nor avoiding conflict at all cost and retreating into an isolated ghetto was the final word of wisdom, rather a dramatic confrontation. (7) Fascination, assimilation and rejection did play a limited but not at all irrelevant role, yet they were overcome by discussion and confrontation, and in the end also by suffering from the consequences of such encounters.

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In this light the theology of religions, declared by pluralists to be the theological logic par excellence, and indebted to the framework of world-civilization, can be compared to the "incarnational" approach. At first glance the truth of the God of the Bible is proved by the very deeds of that God, and over long stretches of salvation history the God the Bible portrays does so by way of orienting Himself, almost syncretistically, towards the prevailing needs in the life of the individual or even the people. Thereby "salvation" is shown as the attempt to integrate all fears and hopes of a person, a group or a people, in all their particularity and all their narrow-mindedness, and make them whole. Thus the respective civilization in which that happens seems to be responsible for the hermeneutical framework that allows an understanding of what God's truth would be. In that context theology seems to be identical with a soteriology that reflects on the immediate experiences of salvation. Yet, such an "incarnational" approach is only the beginning and not the end of biblical revelation, as it is repeatedly transformed in the course of biblical salvation history. Retrospectively more often than not the immediate "experiences of salvation" are discovered to have been disasters at the expense of innumerable victims, yet the now experienced disaster is recognized as another kind of salvation because it uncovers previous deceits and concealments. Therefore, across wide stretches of biblical history the issues of salvation and truth are diverging. The consequence of such a diastase is not to decrease the claim of truth, but rather to clarify the hermeneutical horizon in whose framework the claim of the identity of salvation and truth can be raised anew. The identity of the two, however, is not reached by abstracting from soteriological logic towards a general theological one - as is the case with the pluralists. Such an abstraction only shifts the ground on which the discussion vital for finding meaning in human life can take place. The identity of salvation and truth is revealed in a dramatic historical process that is full of conflicts, and it is often bought at the expense of tears and blood, yet it integrates all "claims to salvation" that are vital. The normative vision of the identity of soteriology and theology that also marks the normative destination of the inter-religious encounters is expressed by clear metaphors: Only when the last "bent reed" receives justice, the "salvation" and the "truth" of the biblical God - with regard to human social existence and human history - may be thought of as one. (8)All claims, those of the world-civilization in all its dimensions, but also those of organized religiosity, need to be measured by this stick. The uniqueness of Christianity is to be discussed in this context: if we assume that biblical logic lives by the confidence that the history of the people of Israel was the ground on which this dramatic process has happened, then we have to accept that the New Testament's logic lives by the belief that this entire biblical history has focused - like in a burning-glass - in a single historical person: the existence of the Jew Jesus of Nazareth.

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If one looks at our question in this light, one will not be surprised that it is especially the Judaeo-Christian tradition among the major religions that is most sharply called into question and charged with making a totalitarian claim by the techno-scientistic rationality. The attack of the "New Right" upon the logic of Jewish monotheism, the questioning of the concept of the human being which goes hand in hand with this, and the propagation of the neo-pagan world-construction as the mode of theological thinking corresponding to this world-civilization are the most recent impulses that forbid the Christian theologian to minimize the claim of his or her tradition in the the encounter of the religions. (9)

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Faithful to the biblical perception of reality, he or she will move the dramatic model to the front and thus will probably also provoke conflicts and arguments. Yet, when the tendency of human beings to engage in conflicts and the situation of conflict of the world-civilization is fought out step by step in the religions and their encounter with each other, and is not superficially "reconciled" and suppressed, then this in particular will be - as a by-product - a contribution to peace.

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 1. Marshall McLuhan's book in 1964 introduced the term "global village" into language, which has become commonplace in the meantime (McLuhan, Marshall, Understanding media. The Extension of Man. London and Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press. 1964; second edition with a new introduction by Lewis H. Lapham 1994).

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2. René Girard, Violence and the Sacred. Baltimore: John Hopkins 1977.

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3. Paul Dumouchel, Jean-Pierre Dupuy, Die Hölle der Dinge. René Girard und die Logik der Ökonomie. Beiträge zur mimetischen Theorie 9. Thaur-Münster 1999.

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4. For further discussion, see Jozef Niewiadomski, Herbergsuche. Auf dem Weg zu einer christlichen Identität in der modernen Kultur. Münster-Thaur: LIT-Druck-und Verlagshaus 1999, 149-166.

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5. For further discussion, see Ian Hamnett ed., Religiosus pluralism and unbelief: studies critical and comparative. London and New York: Routledge 1990.

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6. Surin, Kenneth, "A certain 'politics of speech': 'Religious Pluralism' in the Age of the McDonald's Hamburger." Modern Theology 7: 67-100,72.

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7. For "dramatic model" of theology from Girardian point of view see Raymund Schwager, Jesus im Heilsdrama. Entwurf einer biblischen Erlösungslehre. Innsbrucker theologische Studien 29. Innsbruck, Wien: Tyrolia 1990; Jozef Niewiadomski and Wolfgang Palaver Wolfgang, ed. Dramatische Erlösungslehre. Ein Symposion. Innsbrucker theologische Studien38. Innsbruck, Wien: Tyrolia 1992; Jozef Niewiadomski and Wolfgang Palaver, ed. Vom Fluch und Segen der Sündenböcke. Beiträge zur mimetischenTheorie9. Thaur: Kulturverlag1995; Raymund Schwager, Grzech pieworodny i dramat zbawienia. W kontekscie ewolucji, inzynierii genetycznej i Apokalipsy. Tarnow: Biblos 2002.

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8. For further discussion, see Niewiadomski, Herbergsuche (4) 47-78.

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9. For further discussion, see Niewiadomski, Herbergsuche (4) 101-114.

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