Authority, Community & Identity article

Interreligious Dialogue, Too, Can Marginalize

In my previous post on Manila 1960 as a forgotten yet fascinating chapter in the history of Interreligious Dialogue, I made a distinction between hagiography and unofficial history. In a way, I learned about the 1960 conference on “The Present Impact of the Great Religions of the World upon the Orient and the Occident” the “wrong” way around—by first getting acquainted with the unofficial story and only later with the somewhat more flattering self-portrait.

While working in the Pax Romana archives at the Bibliothèque Cantonale et Universitaire Fribourg, I came across letters concerning the organization of the conference as well as the transcript of the discussions. The transcript had been prepared for a later publication that never materialized. Later on, I found the official documentation, published by Pax Romana and now accessible online on the Pax Romana website.

Taken together, these sources offer two mutually complementary perspectives, both of which are essential for understanding the Manila meeting.

The Official Story

A short look at the table of contents of the official documentation reveals three interesting aspects.

First, most of the people contributing papers to the conference had no formal religious authority, legitimized either by office or charisma. Second, there were quite a lot of university teachers, e.g. in history (Das Gupta, Husain, Yahia, Shibata), philosophy (Nakamura, Louvaris, Matsumoto), and education (Greenberg, Kraemer). But there was only one priest (Father de la Costa) and no monk, no bishop, and no other religious teacher. Third, all of them were linked to the Western academic milieu, whether by academic training, position, or long residence in Europe or the US. The voices of indigenous religious authority were not heard because they were not present.

Browsing more intensively through the ten public lectures given in the morning-sessions of the Manila-conference, one recognizes two further facts that help characterize the meeting.

On one hand, all the participants of the conference tried to make their own fundamental religious position known. More or less to the exclusion of all else, they worked hard to introduce each other—on a rather abstract level—to the basic concepts and categories of their respective religions. Whether this was actually necessary or not, is difficult to tell. But at least the Manila participants themselves seemed to have had the impression that the other participants needed this rudimentary background. So, here we have a group of sophisticated academics more or less describing their personal religious position to each other in the simplest and most basic of terms.

On the other hand, the participants stuck closely to the topic proposed by the organizers: They all commented on the role of religions in the world of the early 1960s. Most of them described this world as industrialized, materialist, and secular—as, in short, modern. And they described religion as adding value that was necessary though increasingly marginalized. There were actually just two exceptions to this rule. In his paper on Hinduism, S. B. Das Gupta underlined the compatibility between Hinduism and modern society, in line with nineteenth-century Hindu reformer Swami Vivekananda, and Mahmud Hussain presented a similar approach to Islam.

These exceptions notwithstanding, all the papers make clear that the conference was not only an encounter between different religious positions but also a meeting of a religious unity in the face of a modern society that was perceived as secular and non-religious. Or, as the Polish Journalist Jerzy Turowicz put it a little bit reluctantly:

« On a constaté, peut-être non sans certain surprise, des fortes convergences entre les attitudes des différentes religions. […] Evidemment elles ne constituent pas une base pour une synthèse englobant des différentes religions, un syncrétisme, qui pour les catholiques, et probablement aussi pour les croyants des autres religions ne serait ni désirable ni admissible. […] Les convergences témoignent seulement du fait que chaque religion contient une certaine sagesse naturelle et qu’une correspondance existe entre l’expression religieuse et les exigences de la nature humaine. » (TUROWICZ, Jerzy, Les grandes religions et le monde d’aujourd’hui, in: Pax Romana 14,1 (1960), p. 12f, here: 12.)

The Unofficial Story

What the official documentation does not allude to are the afternoon sessions of the conference, moderated by Olivier Lacombe. These sessions were restricted to a small number of participants. In order to learn more about them, one has to dig into the respective boxes of papers in the Pax Romana archives.

The transcripts first of all create the impression of an extremely “civilized” encounter, without a hint of contentious argument or mutually exclusive positioning.

The encounter was so polite, perhaps, because it was so contained. Whether due to social constraints or personal preferences, the discussions were actually dominated—in more or less equal parts—by Das Gupta, Pannikar, Kraemer, and Greenberg. The two Muslim representatives rose rather rarely to speak. When they did so, it was mostly to answer questions addressed directly to them. And the same holds true for the Roman Catholic, the Orthodox, the Buddhist, and the Shinto representatives.

The UNESCO representative, Jacques Havet, who had already attended the human rights seminar of Pax Romana in Limburg an der Lahn, nine years earlier, actually seems to have taken a back seat, too. However, he raised two interesting questions that concern UNESCO even now. One was the question of the compatibility between technological development and religious attitudes. As it happens, in fact, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) was just about to be established, in 1965. The other was the question of religious exclusiveness in the face of religious plurality.

An Interest in the Non-Monotheist Other & in the Everyday

Finally, the transcript highlights two seemingly contradictory realities.

On one hand, it was not Islam that triggered the most intense discussions in Manila. It was rather the East Asian and South Asian religions that were the subject of sustained inquiry and discussion. In this respect, the conference seemed to be dominated by the religious interest of the monotheistic speakers in the religious traditions they considered most distant from their own position.

On the other hand, the discussions were much more down-to-earth than the official papers might suggest. Most of the time, the participants did not discuss abstract religious questions. In contrast to their own presentations, they focused instead on practical and immediate issues, such as the social position of the family, the everyday side of missionary work, and the influence of increasing leisure time on religious observance.

So what do we learn from these complementary stories? To answer that question, we need to pursue two further questions: Why did Manila 1960 take place under the peculiar circumstances described so far? And why did Manila 1960 remain a forgotten episode of Interreligious Dialogue? We’ll pursue these questions in my next and final post on Manila 1960.

Karsten Lehmann
Karsten Lehmann is head of social sciences statistics at the King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural dialogue. He was previously Senior Lecturer in Religious Studies at Bayreuth University in Germany, and for the 2011 calendar year a Research Fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs of Georgetown University. With his colleague Stefan Kurth, he publishd an edited volume on research methods in religious studies (Religionen erforschen - Kulturwissenschaftliche Methoden in der Religionswissenschaft, forthcoming 2011).

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