Towards a Liturgical Turn in Comparative Theology? Opportunities, Challenges, and Problems

March 1, 2016
Marianne Moyaert

On Thursday, March 3, Marianne Moyaert, Chair of Comparative Theology, Faculty of Theology, at VU Amsterdam, and Guest Lecturer Post-Holocaust Theology, Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies, at KU Leuven, delivered the 2015-2016 Comparative Theology Lecture.

Below, Moyaert spoke about her lecture, "Towards a Liturgical Turn in Comparative Theology? Opportunities, Challenges, and Problems," the importance of such values as hospitality for interreligious encounters, and some of the successes and challenges of interreligious learning and literacy at VU Amsterdam.

HDS: A recent work of yours is In Response to the Religious Other: Ricoeur and the Fragility of Interreligious Encounters. In this book, you provide an interreligious understanding of Ricoeur's hermeneutical philosophy. Among the values you highlight are vulnerability, openness, and hospitality. Why are these values important for interreligious encounters?

MM: Even though Ricoeur has not written much about interreligious dialogue, his hermeneutical philosophy is nevertheless helpful to think through some of the challenges facing us today. Cultural and religious diversity are an integral part of life. The religious other is no longer an abstract figure but is seen in all her concreteness as neighbor, colleague, friend, spouse, etc. These changing religious patterns influence both the identity formation of the self and the religious community with which one identifies.

The intimate presence of others and their vivid wisdom traditions undermine some of the certainties, non-negotiable convictions, and absolute truth claims that formed the building blocks of identity formation in the past. Finding a way to express religious dedication in the midst of plurality is a complex challenge, and Ricoeur acknowledges that the encounter with the religious other can cause discomfort. Indeed, as he himself admits, it seems all but reasonable to commit oneself to a tradition, knowing that it is but one option amongst others. How can something that is relative and contingent be absolute at the same time? How can one justify such absolute claims? The tension between what is absolute and contingent seems to give one's identity a lack of foundation and surrounds it with a sense of frailness. Because of this frailness, the encounter with those who believe otherwise is not a matter to be taken lightly. Indeed, the encounter with the religious other can be very unsettling and destabilizing because she makes us aware of our own alterity and thus of the vulnerability of our own religious commitment. In a nutshell, the strange other is experienced as a threat because she or he reveals the strangeness of our own identity.

However he does not allow us to slip into a sort of pathological thinking. The encounter with the other can certainly unsettle people and make them long for firm ideological foundations, but, according to Ricoeur, it can also open up the prospect of an enriching interreligious encounter. This implies a task that believers must be willing to repeatedly fulfill: to pass through a work of mourning in which they learn to say farewell to the absoluteness of their own tradition. As long as identity and otherness are thought of as opposites, openness to the unfamiliar other will be difficult to maintain. It is only in the extent to which believers are able to acknowledge the strangeness of their own identity that they can also open themselves to the strangeness of the other. From this perspective, Ricoeur ascribes a central significance to the practice of hospitality in his account of how people from different contexts can enter into relations of mutual recognition. Against the antithetical scheme of tribalism (identity vs. otherness), Ricoeur places the virtue of hospitality as a model to integrate identity and otherness. In view of the clash of civilizations, what we need today are people who are capable of moving between traditions and who are prepared to welcome religious strangers, people who see themselves as sojourners in search of truth rather than as possessors of "the one" truth.

Hospitality is showing concern for a concrete other because she or he is human. It is a practice that affirms the unity of the human family beyond tribal attachments without denying the reality of difference. Hospitality does not view the stranger as the totaliter aliter but welcomes him as similar in humanity without denying the existing differences. Hospitality creates a space for good coexistence because people are bound to one another without the "strangeness" between them ever being fully neutralized.

HDS: We know that interreligious dialogue is very important in today's world; does it also have a role in academia?

MM: I would answer this question by pointing to the importance of interreligious education in academia. I regard academia as a pedagogical environment, where students (and their teachers), apart from all the important theories they learn about, also acquire highly needed skills and competencies to navigate our complex world. More than ever, we need "border-crossers," people willing to participate in various forms of interreligious learning. Most policy makers agree that education, especially, carries a huge responsibility in promoting and fostering the competencies of interreligious literacy. The "elite" of tomorrow will be formed by people who do not seek cover in their own symbolic community where they meet only like-minds, but rather by people who, not unlike the Greek God Hermes, have the flexibility to move between different worlds and translate their convictions in a meaningful way to those who believe differently.

Let me make this more concrete. The faculty of theology, VU (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam) has become a center where not only other Protestant denominations are welcomed (Mennonites, Baptists, Pentecostals, evangelicals, etc.) but also Hindus and Buddhists, Muslims and Jews. Students are trained to become religious scholars, theologians, pastors, imams, or Buddhist and Hindu spiritual care givers. In any case, this faculty has become a meeting place for believers belonging to different religious traditions and Christian denominations. It is a daily challenge to do justice to the particular confessional commitments of our students while at the same time creating an educational environment of dialogical openness. In this context, people with their different religious backgrounds need to learn to accept this situation of diversity, tolerate and respect confessional differences, deal with faith-related conflicts, and (hopefully) come to regard the plurality of worldviews as an opportunity to learn with and from each other.

I have opted for an interreligious practice known as scriptural reasoning, which aims at building interreligious communion through a praxis of reading and studying the sacred texts (scripture) together. In the context where I teach, I have come to broaden the scope of scriptural reasoning to include Buddhists and Hindus as well as post-Christians, dual belongers, and atheists.

In my experience, and based on the testimonies of my students, this process is transformative in many ways and helps them to achieve interreligious literacy. Even though some of my students hesitate to participate in scriptural reasoning (while others are enthusiastic from the very start), all of them learn valid lessons both about their own religious identity—who they are, what they believe to be important—and about the religious other and her tradition. They learn how to explain their own faith to others and build bridges between traditions; they learn how to cope with failed translations by starting again and re-translating. What is more, they are not only confronted with interreligious diversity, but also with internal diversity and the fact that those who supposedly believe the same sometimes come to very different interpretations. Furthermore, several of my students report back, that even though their theological understanding of the other tradition (i.e. Islam) has not altered, they cannot deny that reading together has led to new insights. The texts have come alive in unexpected ways.

HDS: Your lecture is entitled: "Towards a Liturgical Turn in Comparative Theology? Opportunities, Challenges, and Problems." How did you decide on this topic?

MM: For some time now, I have been struggling with the question of whether we should broaden the scope of comparative theology so as to include both material and ritual practices. Comparative theology generally start from a study of texts—scriptural texts that have been canonized, commentaries on these texts, and philosophical, theological, and mystical treatises. Though this textual focus gives us access to some of the most subtle and nuanced analyses developed in various traditions, I am concerned that this textual focus may limit our understanding of religion and I am convinced that broadening the scope of comparative theology beyond texts will also contribute to the theological creativity of this approach.

I hypothesize that depending on the sort of source from which we theologize, different questions come to mind relating to different theological problems. Indeed, turning to material and ritual practices, in addition to textual sources, will reveal aspects of the divine that remain invisible when one would stay within the limits of textual study. I do not, in any way, want to turn this in an either/or story in which reading texts is placed against engaging ritual and material practices. What I envision is a complementarity between textual and ritual comparison, not privileging one over the other.

HDS: What in particular would you like people to learn from your lecture?

MM: Often material and ritual practices are regarded as merely expressive of beliefs and convictions that were elsewhere formulated in a conceptually more clear and transparent way (e.g. in written sources). As a consequence and despite their prominence in most religious traditions, there has been far less attention for sacred sites, statues, symbols, and ritual practices as compared to texts. I would like for people to consider that material and ritual practices are also constitutive and formative of our religious knowledge and experience. Material and ritual practices do not simply express or transmit truths that already exist apart from them, they are truly creative: they can alter understanding and generate new insights and even criticize tradition. Participating in ritual activities can sometimes generate new thoughts and bring about change in tradition. Rituals can be pioneering, rather than simply expressive; they can be the starting place of imaginative and creative thought, which may even challenge and contradict tradition. If we take this seriously, one can understand why a "liturgical turn in comparative theology" would make sense.

—by Melissa Coles, MDiv candidate