The interreligious theologian does not bracket the own particular standpoint, but her goal is to come to an understanding of the multi-perspectival approach of the Ultimate Reality. Thus, interreligious theology brings a major shift in theology: its method is dialogical and its basis is concrete dialogue between religions. Instead of rather exclusively focusing upon the own as in a religion-specific theology, its scope is global and concerns the faith of all.
The first part of this article describes dialogical theology as a game changer, a paradigm shift. The second part shows how Buber’s dialogical philosophy as it comes to the fore in I and Thou inspires this new theology.
Classical theology worked frequently with the superiority of the own and the inferiority of other religions. If one did not opt for an exclusivist position, one admitted in an inclusivist standpoint stating that some truth is present in the other religions, but the all truth would lie in the own religion. Dialogical theology, on the contrary, takes the religious other serious as equal partner in the interreligious dialogue. It is unescapably transformational, because of the widening of the horizon, which allows lively contact with religious others that have their own, genuine access to the Ultimate Reality. In the course of the interreligious meeting, the prejudices of a person who engages in deep listening to and serious dialogue with religious others become clear. This leads to a revision of previous standpoints and eventually to a reimagining of the own tradition in confrontation with the wisdom of other traditions. One does not leave a dialogue in the same way one entered into it. The encounter with religious others may lead to modifications or corrections of the own viewpoint, to the adoption of multiple belonging and participation or – less radically – to an enrichment of the own position. It may also lead to an abandonment of one’s original religious position and the adoption and embracement of another, more fitting position. To take seriously different values and viewpoints of the dialogue partner as relevant for one’s own understanding is part and parcel of any creative interreligious dialogue. Buddhists, for instance, are challenged by Jews who insist that contact with the transcendent implies the realization of social justice. Jews in turn are challenged by Buddhists who deem that tranquility of mind through non-attachment is necessary as part of the experience of the transcendent reality of nirvana. Real dialogue invites the participants to see their mutual different experiences of the Ultimate Reality as challenging and eventually to revise central theological categories. Jews have access to the Higher Reality through justice, Buddhist through wisdom. Can wisdom without justice and can justice really exist without mindfulness?
The Canadian Professor of comparative religion, Wilfred Cantwell Smith, talked about world theology. Others use the term global, planetary or interreligious theology. For our purpose, the word dialogical theology is more apt, since it highlights the interaction between religions, which do not stand the one alongside the other, but are in creative dialogue with each other. Method and aim of dialogical theology is the living dialogue between religious others.
Learning with and from religious others is a necessary requisite for any dialogical theology. It opens up the own horizon by attentive listening to the religious other with the explicit goal to come into contact with facets of the Ultimate Reality that are not or less known in the own religious experience and tradition. Sometimes the other’s experience of the Ultimate Reality is complementary to one’s own experience, sometimes it is incompatible. Dialogical theology surmises that the contact with the religious other’s otherness is potentially relevant for one’s own religious life and that the meeting with the other allows to be in touch with aspects of the Ultimate Reality, that would remain unknown without this meeting. It surmises that the approach to the Ultimate Reality is not confined to one’s own religion and that it is multi-faceted. The exploration of different communal interpretations of the Ultimate Reality – in Paul Tillich’s terminology: the ultimate concern – may lead to a correction of our misunderstandings of the religious other, to spiritual enrichment, eventually to borrowing customs or concepts from religious others and, in any case, to a better understanding of the multi-dimensionality of the Ultimate Reality.
Learning presupposes that one accepts differences. Religious differences are frequently made in order to discriminate and make hierarchies. Yet, they may be valued as other, genuine ways to what is the depth of reality. The respect of differences or the recognition that religious others have their own way to the Ultimate Reality, may lead to a trans-difference, which makes bridges between different worlds. These bridges are not compromises, but are the result of our awareness of a basic human interconnectedness and of the interconnection between the different religious interpretations of the multi-faceted Ultimate Reality. Learning is leaving the narrowness of one’s world by recognizing the relevance of the other for the self-understanding of the same. There is no I without relation with the non-I. This is not a functionalizing of the non-I, but a consciousness that I and non-I cannot be separated and that they are necessarily linked to each other. The I may be shaped not in negating the other, but through the recognition of the other’s otherness. In contact with different interpretative communities, one may become conscious of the limitations of one’s own interpretation. One’s identity may be fashioned in a positive way, in interaction with the other by learning, which follows from and is the result of the interdependence of all with all.
Belonging is never only belonging to one group. It is always belonging to the entire world in all its facets. We cannot anymore enclose ourselves in our own interpretation of the Ultimate Reality without considering other interpretations. This does not have to result in a super- of meta-theology. Our belonging to the world as such obliges us to come into dialogue with others. This praxis of interreligious dialogue and learning will result in the construction of different forms of dialogical theology, from various vantage points. Inevitably, these many formulations of dialogical theology will influence the own concrete context of the theologian, out of which she constructs a dialogical theology. Dialogical theology goes beyond the limits of confessional theology and takes into account the wider context of a variety of religions.
Religions are linked to the world, but they have their specificity. We are specific, and at the same time we belong to all. Dissimilation is crucial; it is even the condition of relationships. This attention to differences is a prerequisite for a dialogical theology that appreciates a plurality of approaches to the Ultimate Reality.
Dialogical praxis and theory
Dialogical theology accepts and celebrates plurality in religiosis and is grounded in a dialogical praxis. It investigates the conditions for an interreligious dialogue in which partners learn from each other and appreciate each other. Dialogical theology is therefore a novel way of relating to different religious groups in society; it deems that exclusivism, inclusivism or mere tolerance are insufficient. It does less work with official representatives of religious institutions – this is frequently boring and without depth – than with learning in bookless moments from and with people who live and think differently.
In the emerging new discipline of dialogical theology, distinctness allows for communication. Dialogical theology investigates the incomparability and incommensurability of religions as well as the comparability between them: it establishes connections through translations and creates bridges.
Every dialogue is an act of translation. One cannot understand the other person but from one’s own vantage point. One therefore has to translate, which is a complex and problematic, but necessary process. More objectivity is not reached by bracketing one’s subjectivity. Yet, in translation, more is at stake. Translation also changes the person that crossed her own borders through the meeting with the religious other. Having met another person’s world, having shared her values and insights, one’s own world is put into question, modified, enlarged, enriched and transformed. In translating, the I is not any more identical to himself, he has otherness in himself because of the intensive contact with another world.
Religions sometimes isolate themselves, highlighting exclusive belonging to the own group. In other, better moments, they reach out to other religions. In the latter case, interreligious conversations occur. Dialogue between people from different religions is intimately linked to the art of translation, which brings diverse worlds together. Translating is an act of peace, an eminently dialogical act. This is also true of the reading of holy texts that have to be heard today, in a different time, space and culture, as they were in the time, space and culture in which they were composed. In fact, every conversation between people is translation. Because human existence is plural, a conversation is always about translating. It is about passing frontiers and meeting other worlds. In dialogue and encounter, translation takes place and hospitality is extended. It is no longer about we and they, but about we and you. In dialogue, an otherness is communicated that cannot be neutralized in sameness. This is – it seems to me – of crucial importance for dialogue in general and for interreligious dialogue in particular. Each conversation is communication between different worlds. We have to relearn how to say and.
Buber’s I and Thou and dialogical Theology
Buber himself did not immediately apply his dialogical thought to interreligious dialogue because he was more interested in religiosity than in religions. He preferred religiosity to religion, adopting a critical, meta-religious standpoint. He radicalized Georg Simmel’s distinction between religion and religiosity and put religiosity above concrete religions. However, his dialogical thoughts may inspire the emerging new field of interreligious theology.
Central in Buber’s dialogical philosophy is the encounter between human beings. Buber described encounter as the lofty human possibility that creates the between-person, the dialogical person, who makes bridges to the other. The betweenperson is a human being, who masters the art of being fully present. He knows how to acknowledge and encounter others, how to affirm them in their concrete existence and how to create a common world. What happens between people is real life:
»Spirit is not in the I but between I and You. It is not like the blood that circulates in you but like the air in which you breathe. […] It is solely by virtue of his power to relate that man is able to live in the spirit.« Dialogical theology cannot without the realm of the between, masterfully described by Buber.
Buber’s Category of Presence (Gegenwärtigkeit)
In Buber’s I and Thou, presence is a keyword. We frequently turn to the other in a fragmentary manner, but not with full, unreserved attention to her in pure presence. We want to know, to use, to describe, to experience the other, but this does not lead to encounter, which becomes only possible by an holistically relating I, that is present before the other and makes the other present.
In Buber’s philosophy, full presence before another human being without preconceived agenda leads to contact with the Ultimate Reality. In the third part of his I and Thou, he points to the necessity of religions, which all create »a new form of God in the world« to the degree that they relate to their living source and force, the ever present Thou. Religions have a Janus face: they belong to the it-world as well as to the you-world.
Buber greatly criticized religions that were disconnected from the world and he situated the relationship with God within the inter-subjective meeting. Only through presence to the other one receives a glimpse of the ever present, eternal Thou. Consequently, God is never an object of our thoughts, an it, but rather is to be addressed as a Thou. In Buber’s view, lowering God to an it has been the eternal problem of religions that want to possess God and make Him permanently available. In religions, Buber asserts, one desires »to have God.« In contrast, he understood authentic religiosity or the real encounter with the eternal Thou as taking place in openness to the other human being. Faith and cult may degenerate and freeze the living, holistic I-you relationship into a relationship of lesser degree, the fragmentary I-it relationship that occurs between subject and object. Inversely, thanks to the living, actual relationship, cult and faith may turn again and again into presence. For Buber, religiosity meant pure presence. Real meeting does not dominate the other and refuses to neutralize his otherness.
Buber’s dialogical thoughts as they come into expression in I and Thou inspire a dialogical theology that has living dialogue as its subject. Such a theology, rooted in concrete multicultural and interreligious dialogues, may refer to Buber’s thought in which real meeting is only possible when one is present for the other. Dialogical theology values one’s presence that makes the other present, without classifying and objectifying, and without functionalizing, missionizing, preaching or admonishing. The dialogical theologian endeavors to see the world through the eyes of the other. This is realized by non-confrontational, non-judgmental, non-dominating, pure presence. The sublime act of presence (Gegenwärtigkeit) is a cornerstone for the construction of an interreligious theology.
»All actual life is encounter«
For Buber inter-human meetings do not take place when hearing or reading about the other and his narrative. In the real-life encounter, one speaks to the other, one talks with the other, one addresses her in openness. Historically, religions easily made a caricature of other religions instead of approaching them without bias. Stanislaw Krajewski explains that, in Buber’s perspective, successful interreligious encounters are without expectations, so to say aimless. Indeed, for Buber, real encounters do not have special goals other than encountering the other. Applied to interreligious dialogue, one shall not have further expectations from the partner, who is never a mere object of cognition. The meeting with her is beyond knowledge. If knowledge comes first, one misses a real meeting. In aimlessness, the marvel of meeting takes place. Dialogue is not a dispute or a debate but entails affirming (not merely accepting) the partner and approaching her as a you.
In view of the fact that the interreligious dialogue is often burdened by a priori categories, biased attitudes and reductive approaches, Buber’s alternative to the problematic it-world with its subject-object scheme is therapeutic.
The art of translating
The principles that led Buber and Rosenzweig to their extraordinary Bible translation are another refined contribution to dialogical thinking and theology. Their Verdeutschung der Schrift, with its demand to be heard by Jews as well as by Christians, serves as an eminent example of intercultural and interreligious dialogue. The Biblical text as a product of the specific Jewish culture had a certain strangeness to the German ear, a foreign tone which Buber and Rosenzweig preserved in their translation. They opposed the domestication and assimilation of the original text into the target text and culture and resisted the temptation to completely absorb the original text in an all-devouring target text. At the same time, their translation contributed to cultural diversity and transdifference, since they brought the Jewish culture into interaction with the German one. In this manner, they envisioned today’s hermeneutics of the foreign, in which otherness comes into (critical) dialogue with sameness. This method became a central feature in interreligious theology. With their sensibility for the particularity of the Hebrew world and their attention to otherness, Buber and Rosenzweig brought about a radical change of perspective in the hearers of the Biblical word. The respect for otherness that comes to the fore in their Bible translation is vital in every conversation, including the interreligious one.
Differences and trans-difference
Buber built bridges between different religions. He distinguished between Judaism and Christianity, but he deemed that, in eschatological times, the exiles of the religions would be gathered in the Kingdom of God. This eschatological perspective made religions relative and put them, in a radical way, in service of the Kingdom of God, which should not be identified with only one religion. Religions were not the Kingdom itself.
Buber noted differences between Judaism and Christianity, but he developed a trans-different attitude. He wanted to teach Christians that Jesus could only be understood from his Jewish background. He believed in an interaction with Christians and hoped that they could see Jesus with new eyes and learn what had been neglected throughout the ages: that Jesus’s context was a Jewish one. Jesus became for him the hyphen between two religions that needed each other.
Buber accepted Jesus as the link between Jews and Christians. He did not believe in Jesus, but with the belief of Jesus. He placed Jesus in the history of Messianism and saw him as someone with Messianic forces, as a suffering Servant of the Lord, an arrow that – for the first time – came out of God’s quiver (compare Isaiah 49,2), a Messianic person who stepped out of hiddenness. He hoped that Jews would give a place to Jesus in the history of Messianism and of Servants of the Lord (Isaiah 53). He admonished Christians to recognize that Jesus belonged to Judaism and that he could not be extracted from his most natural Sitz im Leben in favor of the invention of Christ as presented in Pauline theology and the dogmata. At the same time, he disagreed with Jewish religious fundamentalists, who did not want to hear about Jesus or Christianity. He believed that he had created a common ground between Christians and Jews.
Buber considered Jesus to be his big brother: »My own fraternally open relationship to him has grown ever stronger and clearer, and today I see him stronger and clearer than ever before.« Jesus was a person who had been completely within the Jewish tradition. He had desired that people not forget the intention of their deeds and remembered to hallow each detail in everyday life. His Jesus was anti-dualistic and anti-Gnostic, like a Hassid, who hallows every aspect of life and accentuates intention and interiority. He related to the world, which had to be mended and brought to the Kingdom of God. Buber was not interested in the Christ of the Church, but he wrote extensively about Jesus as an eminent dialogical person and as a Jewish son of God.
He stressed that the process of bringing the divine Kingdom to earth implied suffering, taking upon oneself the burden of others, in responsibility. In his view, Jesus was a suffering Servant, an eved ha-Shem as in Deutero-Isaiah. He sincerely thought that his understanding of Jesus as suffering Servant could diminish dualistic, Gnostic tendencies in Christianity.
In the hoped-for Renaissance of Judaism, Jesus would be recognized as somebody who said Thou to the Father, a son of God, sprouting from a community of sons of God. In Buber’s dialogical perspective, the emuna of religiosity was critical of any fixed belief of the religions: God’s presence had to be felt in all spheres of life. Jesus, who lived in God’s presence, was the link between two religions, exemplifying a great, lived religiosity.
In his Two Types of Faith, Buber radically opposed the Jewish emunah (trust) with the Christian pistis (creed). In his typology, emuna is dominant in Judaism, whereas pistis rules in dogmatic, Hellenistic Christianity. To a great extent, Buber’s distinction between the Jewish emuna and the Hellenistic-Gnostic pistis overlaps his distinction between I-you and I-it in his I and Thou. It further overlaps his difference between religiosity or prophetic attitude and religion or priestly organization.
For Buber, emuna is I-you language, and pistis is I-it. Critical of the growing I-it culture of his time, he deemed that this problem started with the Pauline view: Paul ’s impact would be tangible in the society of Buber ’s days. Paul objectivized and created dogma instead of continuing a religion, in which teshuva (= answer and turning) is central. In his attention to religion as linked to the concrete secular world, Buber – in my view unjustly – severely criticized Paul, who was made responsible for the growth of the I-it culture. Paul would have been at the root of the present I-it culture. Paulinism was palpable whenever one relinquished a forever unredeemed and unredeemable world. In his own religious socialism, Buber linked religiosity to the concrete world. Faithful to the Jewish idea of tiqqun’olam (mending the world), he contested the dichotomy between religiosity and secularity.
With his contrast between faith, belief in (pistis) and unconditional trust (emuna), Buber rephrased his philosophical categories of I-it and I-you and applied them to the religious domain. The problem is that by this application of his philosophical categories, Christianity belongs largely to the it-world, deprived of the salvific you-world. To my mind, such an accusation cannot be a point of departure for interreligious dialogue.
It is nonetheless to be appreciated that, through his approach to Jesus, Buber inspired many Christians. He described Jesus as a Messianic person who called for teshuva. Jesus had a faith that expressed itself in deeds, but placed the emphasis upon one’s interiority, upon the way one performs commandments. In this manner, Buber purified Jesus from the dogmatic garments in which he was dressed by his followers in later stages. In the same way as Buber, David Flusser tried in his historical research to understand Jesus from his Jewish origins. Thereby, Buber and Flusser, each in his own way, laid foundations for a fruitful and challenging dialogue between Judaism and Christianity. From the standpoint of interreligious theology, this is a great contribution: a very Jewish Jesus, a kind of tsaddiq, connected to and responsible for others, rejoicing and suffering with them, became the link between Judaism and Christianity.
With his dialogical thoughts, Buber contributed to the appraisal of a plurality of religions in relation to the eternal Thou. He paved the way to a new view in which all religions are seen as approaching the Transcendent or Unutterable, about which all religions have so much to say. His metareligiosity also allows for acceptance and criticism of religions that are all in exile : religions are not God himself and no believer is in possession of God’s pure word.
Buber clearly advocated the autonomy and vitality of Jewish life, which was not a mere praeparatio evangelica that served to prove the superiority of Christianity over Judaism. This was his unambiguous position in a time when Christians looked down upon what they called the stubborn and stiff necked Jews who refused to recognize Jesus as the Messiah because of the unredeemed character of the world. Buber invited Jews and Christians to truly meet each other in dialogues without preconceived agendas. Both had their own way to God and had to testify to His presence through meetings in this concrete world. Our appreciation of Buber does not prevent us from criticizing Buber on a few points. Interreligious theology tries to understand the other as he would like to be understood, in his specificity. It desires to get rid of defensive apologetics and works with openness to the religious other from whose specificity one may learn. In contrast to Buber’s analysis in Two Types of Faith, the new view on Paul does not perceive Paul any longer as the founder of a new religion. Paul is rather the religious genius who extended the divine alliance from the Jewish people to the entire spectrum of the nations of the world.
Another point of critique concerns Buber’s view on the relation between religiosity and religion. I wonder if Buber takes the differences between Judaism and Christianity enough into account, in his effort to show that early Christianity had its roots in Judaism. In his endeavor to come to what I call trans-difference, he did not fully appreciate that Christianity has its own autonomy as a world religion, which is a concrete way of organizing life in view of the Ultimate Reality. His effort to bring Christianity closer to Judaism has to be appreciated. But, did he sufficiently respect Christianity’s self-understanding as rooted in Judaism, and at the same time, as enlarging Judaism’s horizon to the whole world? Of course, Buber knew that Jews and Christians each had their own way of talking about the divine mystery and that this may lead to mutual understanding. In the renewal of their respective faith, Israel and the Church had much to say to each other that had not yet been said and, in this manner, they could help each other. With all these positive utterances, however, Buber could not accept Jesus’s divinization and, in fact, no Jew accepts the idea that a human being is God. But does Christianity not have its own particular way of approaching the Ultimate Reality? Doesn’t it have its autonomous development? Do different faiths necessarily have to be compatible? And could Buber have been less astonished and more comprehensive if he took into account that there are certain things that are allowed for Christians and forever forbidden for Jews?
Buber greatly contributed to the construction of dialogical theology. Being present before the other and making the other present characterized every genuine encounter. Moreover, his reflections on the importance of emuna form the basis for any interreligious dialogue that leaves out distrust and animosity. Interreligious theology and a hermeneutics of trust instead of a hermeneutics of suspicion have much to learn from Buber’s insight into the crucial role of the attitude of emuna as existential trust and confidence. In Buber’s vision, Judaism could learn from Christianity and vice versa. At the end of his Two Types of Faith he states that Christians believe individually, but may learn from Jews to see the implications of their faith on the collective level. Likewise, Jews with their interest in the collective may learn from Christians that the individual is equally important.
Buber’s subtitle of Two Types of Faith is relevant in this context: A Study of the Interpenetration of Judaism and Christianity. One religion could learn from the other, since they interpenetrated. Buber’s view on mutual learning and on the positive interaction between the two religions is exemplary for the interreligious dialogue and theology. In interreligious dialogue one is open to learn new things from the religious other in the search for a good life in view of the Ultimate Reality.
Buber’s focus upon the Jewish-Christian tradition has to be extended to other religions, which are all attempts to approach a transcendent reality that finally escapes one’s grasp, as longstanding apophatic traditions know. His dialogical, interpersonal thinking may be applied to the ongoing conversation between people who belong to different religious groups.
Buber’s prophetic vision on a future interaction between religions does not lead to mere multiculturalism, it rather stimulates the fruitful interaction between religions, or: inter-culturalism and inter-religiosity. Cross-fertilization becomes possible. In the interreligious dialogue, one’s own otherness and difference is important, but there is also the other’s otherness. Beyond inassimilable otherness, lofty communication remains a human possibility, since we live in one world. This is the hypothesis of the developing dialogical theology, to which Buber contributed through his life and work.