Sunday, 3 April 2011


In a couple of recent talks I have been speaking about Catherine Cornille's book ' The Im-Possibility of Interreligious Dialogue.' Cornille argues for an approach to interreligious dialogue that is concerned with practising five virtues and cultivating these virtues from within the resources of one's own faith tradition in dialogue with others. The virtues of humility, commitment, interconnection, empathy and hospitality are explored in depth in her book always through engagement with the experience of finding both common ground (possibility) and the reality of radical difference (impossibility) in our engagement with the religious 'other'. In her understanding of interreligious dialogue both poles of experience are embraced as creative and dynamic realities needing to be held in tension. Cornille has also argued, elsewhere, for developing an understanding of witness based on this model. She encounters a process of 'inter-witnessing' taking place between practitioners in interreligious encounter. My talks have focussed on this through the telling of stories about being witnessed to by people of other faith traditions into a deeper engagement with the virtues that she outlines and in the process of opening myself to being 'witnessed to,' finding that I have 'witnessed' in return.

I was reminded of this when looking at material this weekend on the internet about Golden Rule Day which has been called by the United Nations for tomorrow 5th April 2011. At first glance the Golden Rule appears as one of those initiatives that too easily and quickly seeks common ground whilst eliding the realities of significant difference, failing to maintain Cornille's tension. However in incorporating the Golden Rule into her Charter of Compassion Karen Armstrong begins to engage a mass audience with a spirituality that is not unlike the practices Cornille calls for through her virtues. What is common to both approaches is a necessity to prioritise practice over doctrinal belief. This is emphasised in Cornille by her call to 'doctrinal humility' and in Armstrong with her finding compassion as a commonality that opens up a true love of the 'other' as 'other' and therefore loving them in their difference. This correlates in turn, with Cornille's perspective of being hospitable to 'difference' and 'commonality' and being empathetic in relation to the religious other and through this maintaining the creative tension outlined above.

Whilst developing 'doctrinal humility' there is also a necessity to recognise the traditioned nature of our engagement with such practices as compassion. Hence Cornille emphasises commitment to tradition and Armstrong calls for us to dig deep into our own traditions for the resources to live the compassionate life.

Despite this call to dig deep into our traditions Armstrong is always in danger with her 'independent monotheism' of pulling towards the construction of a new space outside and beyond tradition rather than a meeting point for those committed to a tradition therefore risking the construction of a bland and oppressive universalism that downplays the wonder of particularity. This is a pitfall Cornille is well aware of when she includes in her virtues the necessity of being committed to a tradition. However there is an exciting development that is being attested to by these two women's approaches that calls us all to a deeper engagement with the practices of our traditions that help to cultivate compassion. In the speech below given at the launch of the Charter of Compassion three years ago Armstrong movingly articulates such a vision

As I reflect upon Armstrong's talk and Cornille's book I find myself once more returning to those amazing words of Paul the apostle in his first letter to the Corinthians, for there I find a scriptural affirmation of doctrinal and spiritual humility and a call to a compassionate life through a commitment to the Christian understanding of the nature of Divine Love.

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogantor rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly,but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.