Anyway I was nosing around on my facebook friend's profile, and he was in the class with me, and he was lovely enough to have actually written down all the insane things our professor said. Good times. So I am stealing his work (thanks, Jeff!) and posting it here, for your amusement:
"So that's what you're doing in seminary...trying to get unscrewed."- Merold Westphal
"You don't have to be purple to talk about pansies."- MW
"What happens when you marry a Pole to an Italian? You get just the right number of vowels and consonants in a name."- MW
"Its a lot like an orgy."- MW, describing the Platonic relationship between the soul and pure being
"Anyone ever grow up on Uncle Wiggly?"- MW
"If it isn't scary, it isn't God."- MW
"I don't think Jesus was that into kissing."- MW
MW: I hope you're not a tighty - whitey
Dan: Well, not today.
MW: Hey, I didn't ask!
"Which involves going to church on Sunday mornings and singing hymns lustfully...ah, er... lustilly."- MW
"I always thought you were a monkey."- MW to Harris, eating a banana
Oh, the happy memories. That was actually a really fun class. And so now I will present for your enjoyment a little something I like to call...
INTERFAITH DIALOGUE THROUGH THE HERMENEUTICAL LENS
OF HANS-GEORG GADAMER
A Training Manual based on the Philosopher’s Truth and Method
To reach an understanding in a dialogue is not merely a matter of putting oneself forward and successfully asserting one’s own point of view, but being transformed into a communion in which we do not remain what we were.
~ Hans-Georg Gadamer
This manual is intended to prepare persons who wish to have meaningful conversation with those from faith traditions other than their own. The hermeneutics of philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer will be used to provide a framework for exploring the issues at stake in interfaith encounter as well as the process that leads to understanding. Gadamer himself seeks to offer a description of and not a prescription for achieving understanding; however, we can use his hermeneutics to create a “best practices” model for interfaith dialogue. In this manual, Gadamer will be our guide to understanding ourselves, understanding the Other, the process of dialogue, and the goals of a successful interfaith dialogue.
I. Understanding Ourselves
The first step in preparing for interfaith dialogue is understanding ourselves: we always enter dialogue, both consciously and not, with prejudice. It is impossible to be prejudice-free because we are entrenched in history and tradition (272). By “prejudice,” Gadamer does not mean a negative, unfair assumption, but rather “a judgment that is rendered before all the elements that determine a situation have been finally examined” (273). We come to dialogue with unexamined judgments because we cannot examine a situation that has not yet occurred. This cannot be helped. We always bring prejudice to any new situation because we come to it with some idea of what we are doing and who with. At the very least, we come with self-awareness that has been constituted (consciously and not) by history and tradition (300). We “belong to” history in the sense that it creates in us prejudgments about the world that are far more powerful in shaping our beliefs (and consequent behavior) than any judgment we may have chosen to make (278). We must respect the power of prejudice: that tradition has shaped who we are and will continue doing so. When we accept this inevitability, we can begin to discern our horizon.
All persons experience the world from a horizon: the “range of vision that includes everything that can be seen from a particular vantage point” (301). Tradition has provided this vantage point, and we cannot overcome it because it constitutes who we are. It is called a “horizon” because it takes into account more than only “what is close at hand” (304). There is a whole that is much greater than our part. To have a full sense of our horizon means that we recognize it as not only our particular situation, but also the way our point of view fits alongside innumerable other points of view, all of which together make up the “higher universality” which understanding seeks to achieve (304). Without our particular contribution, understanding cannot be attained; therefore we never give up our own horizon in the quest for a greater commonality or in the mistaken assumption that we could achieve the whole on our own.
Understanding ourselves honestly means recognizing that we are constituted by the past: “the horizon of the present cannot be formed without the past” (305). Our past horizon is more than our personal history; it is the whole “historical movement of human life” in which we move and thus is not “bound to any one standpoint” and nor ever “truly closed” (303). To understand our present horizon, we must first realize that we are part of a much larger tradition that informs our prejudices. And all of this is constantly changing, for we are continually engaged in testing and revising our prejudices based on new encounters. To truly understand ourselves, we must fuse our past and present horizons, bringing out the tensions between them so as to challenge and revise each (305). We bring this fusion to interfaith dialogue, and whatever transpires ensures that our horizons will be continually changing – and changing us at the same time.
Knowing these things about ourselves, how then do we prepare for dialogue? Primarily, by being open to the change that happens when we test prejudices. Having recognized and respected our horizon and prejudices, we put them “at risk” by consciously bringing them to the fore and being willing to revise them according to whatever new truth emerges in dialogue (272). The truth that comes out will challenge only what has been appropriated as part of the conversation; only when our preconceptions are out “on the table,” so to speak, are we able to modify them. If we are not aware of our prejudgments (Gadamer calls this the “tyranny of hidden prejudices,” 272), how could we ever examine them, and discover whether they are true? Our prejudices may enable greater understanding or they may not; if not, they should be revised in favor of what is actually “borne out” by the dialogue (270). Unhelpful prejudices are not usually noticed prior to conversation – how could they be? – but as dialogue moves forward, putting all prejudices at risk in the process of revision and replacement allows the participant to reject those prejudices which are not confirmed by the mutual understanding that emerges (270). This process can only take place when we first understand ourselves as necessarily prejudiced, horizon-bound beings.
Understanding Ourselves: Main Points
- Recognize that your tradition has given you prejudices (not necessarily negative)
- Do not reject or try to overcome prejudices – they make up your unique horizon
- Your horizon is always changing and changing you
- Dialogue requires you to consciously bring forth your prejudices and put them at risk
II. Understanding the Other
An important part of our horizon is our faith tradition, which has usually helped create our prejudgments about those from other religions (even if it ignored them, we learned that they are not worthy of consideration). Whatever our church or temple taught us has been supplemented by the media, our families and peers, and the wider culture. We cannot escape the way we have been formed, and although we cannot help bringing this to the dialogue, we do not have to leave our prejudices unchecked. There are techniques to help us better understand the Other we will encounter and give him or her a fair hearing.
Gadamer observes that true understanding is reached by those who learn to “gaze ‘on the things themselves’” – for us, this means letting the Other herself guide us to knowing her (269). This requires us to move beyond believing what we want to or already do about the Other – what Gadamer calls “arbitrary fancies” and “habits of thought” (269). Instead, we seek to encounter the Other as she truly is. This means, first of all, that each participant recognizes and is sensitive to the Other-ness, or alterity, of their partner: “the indissoluble individuality of the other person” (304). We know that we never fully realize what we ourselves bring to dialogue, because of our entrenchment in tradition (the past horizon). Likewise, the Other cannot fully realize what she brings, nor can she be entirely transparent to us, because of her historical particularity. If we think we already know another person, then we not truly open to learning from him (354).
We must also give up the notion that we can objectively approach one another, for both of us are historically situated in the dialogue process and in ourselves (301, 354-5). We cannot adopt a “neutral” approach (as if we could give up our prejudices), nor should we suppress prejudice. Rather, as we have seen, the most fruitful understanding arises when one is “aware of one’s own bias,” bringing prejudices right out into the open and examining them in relation to what is emerging in the dialogue (271-2). Of course, we allow the Other the same privilege, for “[o]nly by being given full play is [our prejudice] able to experience the other’s claim to truth and make it possible for him to have full play himself” (299).
So with prejudice consciously at the fore, we can delve into the “play between the traditionary text’s strangeness and familiarity to us” – that is, the way that the Other presents himself as we somewhat expect him too, but always has the capacity to surprise and teach us something we never could have known prior to the encounter (295). If we approach another person in confidence that all of our ideas about her will certainly be affirmed, then we are embracing only familiarity and not recognizing her subjectivity. But if we approach the person as a complete mystery about which we can know nothing, then we overemphasize strangeness and will not be open to how she may speak to our tradition. For example, a Christian may assume that a Buddhist has nothing to teach him about God, since Buddhism is usually non-theistic; yet many Christians affirm that Buddhists have helped them think about God in completely unexpected ways that are quite in line with traditional theology but never would have come up without the interfaith encounter. Here the tension in-between strangeness and familiarity has allowed the Christian to learn something about himself as well as about the Other.
We do not seek empathy in our dialogue, in the sense of losing our self to become completely like the Other; nor do we seek domination – of our own viewpoint or the Other’s. Every revision we make projects a new meaning onto the Other, so during dialogue we may have several “rival projects” (that is, prejudices in the constant state of revision) competing for attention. But Gadamer insists that a “unity of meaning” will become clear, and that unity will replace both persons’ prejudices (269). Understanding “always involves rising to a higher universality that overcomes not only our own particularity but also that of the other” (304). Each person’s piece of the truth, added together, makes more of the whole truth visible.
Understanding the Other: Main Points
- Recognize the alterity of the Other
- Do not try to approach the Other objectively
- Celebrate both the familiarity and strangeness of the Other
- Constantly revise your prejudices so as to arrive at a unity of meaning with the Other
III. The Process of Dialogue
For Gadamer, understanding is an event, not a method (308). For our purposes, the event is the dialogue itself, and by exploring what works to achieve understanding, we can coax a procedural “method” out of Gadamer’s observations of successful understanding-events. We have already suggested that the process that leads to fruitful interfaith dialogue includes openness to revision and replacement of prejudices in an ongoing exercise of testing them against the truth emerging from dialogue. Let us explore this process and its implications in more detail.
A real temptation in interfaith discussion is to view the Other as an objective example of his faith tradition, thinking we know all about the person based on our understanding of his religion. When we open ourselves to genuine dialogue, we learn that there is much more to that person than his religion, but also there is much more to his religion than we could have known on our own. The event of understanding begins when we allow the Other to address us as a person and not a representative sample. This requires “the fundamental suspension of our own prejudices” about how he must believe and behave (298). Gadamer describes this suspension as having the structure of a question, meant to “open up possibilities and keep them open” (298). Genuine curiosity about the Other as herself helps us set aside our preconceived notions and causes us to dig deeper into who she really is – and what this teaches us about her tradition (360).
Yet despite our best efforts, we are “always projecting” meaning into whatever we are trying to understand – we always read the Other “with particular expectations” of our own coming into the picture (269, emphasis added).The process of fruitful dialogue which leads to understanding, then, will be to bring these prejudices to the fore of the discussion, so that they may be examined in the open and revised or replaced as required by the truth that emerges from letting the Other be herself. Dialogue that leads to understanding requires each participant to be aware of his or her prejudice and be willing to put it at risk in the face of whatever higher universality emerges. It must begin with mutual awareness of personhood and alterity, but continue by challenging the prejudices which are inescapable despite this awareness.
“Openness to the other, then, involves recognizing that I myself must accept some things that are against me, even though no one else forces me to do so” (355). There is “a fundamental sort of openness” required in that we recognize not only that the other person’s tradition is valid, but that it can speak truth to us (355). Genuine dialogue happens when we trust that we can find truth in our experience with the Other – and from the Other’s experience as well. Gadamer praises the person who seeks truth from new experiences rather than replicable, absolute knowledge: “someone who is radically undogmatic; who…is particularly well equipped to have new experiences and to learn from them” (350). Learning from new experiences means being able to let one’s expectations be thwarted: to embrace the essential element of risk. The person adept at interfaith dialogue possesses openness to new experience as truth-teaching.
Experience does not seek to dogmatically be “right,” but rather “to know what is” – and as finite beings none of us can ever have the full picture of “what is” (351). Admitting our finitude means we move away from dogmatic truth claims. Interfaith dialogue does not measure success by one partner winning an argument about ultimate Truth, but instead seeks to find common experience that speaks to “what is” for both of us, even if we cannot articulate shared dogma. The purpose in questioning the Other is not to find weakness, but to bring out strengths, so that more of reality is uncovered (361). The truth in both viewpoints will revise and replace the prejudices of each, leading to a higher, shared meaning based in the experience. This is, in a nutshell, Gadamer’s hermeneutic; it is also, quite simply, the key to good interfaith dialogue.
The Process of Dialogue: Main Points
- Allow the Other to address you as the subjective person that he or she is
- Bring prejudices to the fore and test them against the Other as a subject (person)
- Be open to learning from new experiences
- Release the need for dogmatic truth in favor of discovering shared experiences of truth
IV. Goals of Successful Dialogue
Discovering shared truth through experience is a complex way of saying that a goal of dialogue is simply to come to an understanding. Whether or not any agreement can be reached on the particulars of dogma, the true aim is “that each person opens himself to the other, truly accepts his point of view as valid and transposes himself into the other to such an extent that he understands not the particular individual but what he says” (387, emphasis added). Until we can explain why the Other’s point of view makes sense, we have not understood it. If we go on dismissing her as blind or stupid, we have not truly allowed ourselves to suspend prejudice and hear her. If we are able to really listen so that the Other’s experience rings true, we will attain a feat sorely lacking – and desperately needed – in most discourse today.
Understanding occurs when horizons – both our own present and past horizons in self-awareness, and our horizon with that of the Other – are fused (305). Fusing them means that our own horizon and the Other’s are changed; it cannot happen without both sides being mutually affected (and effected) by the broadened vista. The result of fusion is that each participant enhances his or her being with new truth. In successful dialogue, “both come under the influence of the truth…and are thus bound to one another in a new community” (371). Thus another goal of dialogue is to create new communities of understanding which grasp more of reality than had either of the persons prior to the encounter.
But dialogue cannot stop with just the warm fuzzies of a new community; Gadamer claims, “we consider application to be just as integral a part of the hermeneutical process as are understanding and interpretation” (307). In interfaith dialogue, we may come to agreement about how we understand something, and even to mutual appreciation of interpretation. But if this does not affect how we live, then true understanding has not taken place. The central problem of hermeneutics, to Gadamer, is application – the changing of practices on account of new understanding (306). If I go on behaving exactly as I did prior to our dialogue, then the Other’s horizon has not truly fused with mine, for there is no evidence in my life of the fusion taking place. The application of the truth will mean some kind of change in practice for each of us, for we now know something more about the world than we did previously, and this cannot help but affect how we live in it. “To reach an understanding in a dialogue is not merely a matter of putting oneself forward and successfully asserting one’s own point of view, but being transformed into a communion in which we do not remain what we were” (371). Genuine dialogue changes practices, not merely beliefs. This is the final goal of interfaith dialogue: to change how we live based upon our encounter with the Other.
Goals of Successful Dialogue: Main Points
- Dialogue seeks to truly understand what the Other says
- Dialogue fuses horizons and binds persons in a new community of shared truth
- Dialogue changes our practices as well as our beliefs
V. In Conclusion: Where Gadamer May Fall Short
By now we can see how Gadamer’s hermeneutics provides an excellent framework for preparation and procedure in interfaith dialogue. However, we must note that Gadamer cannot apply perfectly to our task. For one thing, he is primarily concerned with the interpretation of texts, not persons, and so some of our application may be stretching his meaning. Furthermore, Gadamer is quite adamant that he is not intending to propose a methodology for understanding, but rather is concerned with describing the way understanding happens. By turning his hermeneutics into a method for success in interfaith dialogue, we are taking his ideas further than he intended (let us hope that, because he does not locate the meaning of a text solely in the author’s intent, he would not complain about our doing this!).
There is one more important aspect in which Gadamer may fail us. A notable feature of interfaith dialogue is that it gets at the very heart of people’s beliefs and behaviors; in this sort of work we are dealing with what has possibly most constituted the makeup of prejudice and horizon for a human being. Therefore, when true understanding is achieved across religious lines, the soul of a person can be affected. Sharing common meaning, and having that affect practice, is certainly a noble goal – and the one at which Gadamer seems to aim. However, one wonders if something deeper may be attained when applying this hermeneutic to the realm of religion. Gadamer says that the “task of hermeneutics is to clarify this miracle of understanding, which is not a mysterious communion of souls, but sharing in a common meaning” (292), and by this he means to reject Schleiermacher’s psychological approach to authorial intent. But could the ultimate effect of the “miracle of understanding” in interfaith dialogue actually be a mysterious communion of souls – a mutual recognition that God has spoken to my soul in the same way God has spoken to yours, and therefore we share something more than understanding or meaning, creed or practice – we share an experience of God (or, Schleiermacher might say, of absolute dependence) that causes our souls to commune? The “magic” implied by this claim is likely beyond the realm of philosophical inquiry and takes us into theology instead. But it is a potentiality that Gadamer, perhaps blinded by atheism, did not take into account.
Therefore we must remember that while Gadamer has proven very helpful in our training for interfaith dialogue, he is primarily a guide and not an intentional teacher. Nevertheless, we are confident that if you approach interfaith dialogue using the model offered in this manual, you will be well-prepared for a rewarding experience!
 Gadamer’s Truth and Method is the basis for this manual. Page references will be given in parentheses and all refer to the second, revised edition (New York: Continuum, 2006 printing).
 This is analogous to Gadamer’s description of an artwork increasing in being by its presentation (135).