Theorizing Modernities article

‘The Truth is an Encounter’: Dialogue as a Self-Critical, Self-Transformative Risk



Let me begin by offering my understanding of “what we are about” in this conference. We share 3 goals: At the most general level, we aim to explore and test the proposition that the practice of inter-religious dialogue [IRD] and inter-cultural dialogue [ICD] constitutes a bridge that will carry us from our current situation of societal or ‘civilizational’ tension and destructive conflict—conflict, that is, which finds expression in structural, cultural, or physical violence—to the far shore of a global reality in which ordinary cross-cultural and international interactions are characterized by a vibrant pluralism inclusive of religious as well as secular perspectives and commitments, and in which the inevitable conflicts are managed through the continual striving for mutual understanding and even by something approaching empathy for the Other.

Second, and more specifically, we will explore how democracies might be informed by this so-called ‘dialogue of civilizations.’ This requires us to ask, in turn, how religious actors in the political arena might contribute to a discourse of inclusivity that would seem necessary for the kind of ongoing engagement in the political and civic order required of all citizens in any democracy that deserves the name. Such a democracy necessarily goes beyond ‘one vote, one time,’ to cultivate and even demand of its citizens the attitudes and participation of genuine stakeholders with competing and sometimes converging interests.

Finally, at the most geographically specific and politically concrete level, we ask how IRD and ICD might contribute to conflict resolution, conflict management, and conflict transformation in the Mediterranean region; and, how Italian and U.S. foreign and domestic policies and processes might fruitfully reflect and also advance the dialogue of religious and cultural actors on the regional and global stage.

My job, as I see it, is to usefully nuance, challenge, and deconstruct these goals, or at least this formulation of them. I’ll focus mainly on the first two.

Let’s begin by briefly rehearsing what we think we know about modern religions, about dialogue, about destructive conflict and its resolution, and about democracy—perhaps the most mystical as well as mysterious of these social constructs!


About religions operating under the conditions of modernity, 468 years after the Peace of Westphalia we are fairly confident that we know that multigenerational, transnational religions to be internally plural (ethnically, culturally, politically); internally contested, as one would expect from traditions that are inescapably interpretive (of sacred texts, exemplars, hallowed practices, etc.); and internally anxious, to one degree or another, about the turn that the world has taken.

This religious anxiety is perhaps the less obvious of these markers, but it bears significantly upon our understanding of what ‘dialogue’ across culturally distinct communities can and cannot be expected to achieve. Modern religious actors—indeed, modern religions—are anxious about their own inevitable secularity, which has always been a condition of their existence, in any case, but now looms as a literally maddening doppelganger striding alongside religion’s equally self-defining otherworldly orientation. With the ascendance of a globalizing, infecting, and infectious mode of secularism predicated on the tenets of Western-imported liberal materialism and radical individualism, the religions’ own worldliness, their own secularity, has become an internal threat, a potential demon lurking within.

The seemingly irresistible allure of this hegemonic mode of neo-liberal technocratic secularism became increasingly apparent to the most insightful Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist sages with the dawning (about midway through this Westphalian era) of their own critical self-awareness as being actors within history, with all of its attendant contingencies. Once securely at home among their own, these vibrant religious cultures came to feel increasingly vulnerable and even “in exile” from the world, as the modern world has become its own comprehensive symbol system of meaning that rivals the religions’ own once-dominant cosmologies.

And so some of these religious cultures have anxiously attempted to reduce themselves to mere enclaves. Their embeddedness within an open-ended, contingent and often transgressive history is a fate they try to ignore, an epistemological prison they try to escape, but cannot. Confronted with, culpable in creating, the Enlightenment project, their options in the struggle to remain stable and “traditional” have seemed agonizingly few:

  • They can attempt an awkward mimesis of the regnant techno-scientific empiricism. (“We’ll out-science the scientists by “proving” the inerrancy of the Scriptures by carbon-dating that fossil to support the young earth theory!”)
  • They can try to withdraw into the enclave, name the infidel and flee into isolation, but this proves well-nigh impossible in an economically interdependent, socially interconnected, cyberspace milieu. They keep coming back to the need for the internet if they are going to recruit the next generation, and the stinger missile or dirty bomb if they are to sufficiently provoke and then, eventually, silence the infidel.

And so some of the self-anointed true believers are compelled by the awful logic of violence. Among the things we think we know about modern religions is that the violent extremist movements that erupt within or around them are precisely the dysfunctional expression of this existential insecurity and anxiety I’ve sketched. These violent religious extremism are the ironic product of the very radical individualism, spiritual rootlessness, religious illiteracy, and selective, politicized self-appropriation and narrowing of the tradition, which the extremists rail against.

  • For the frustrated, anxious traditional believers who cannot bring themselves to violence, there is another, far less strenuous path. They can quietly give up, lovingly beat their swords into plowshares and take refuge in a culture-ratifying, non-scandalous version of liberal Protestantism, Unitarianism, Reconstructionist Judaism or nominal Islam. However, in polite company their fundamentalist co-religionists deride this path as abject capitulation; in vast swaths of the Middle East, tragically, they literally decapitate the infidel as well as the apostate.
  • And then, finally, there is another option, one that is most intriguing for the inchoate project that is being tested at this conference. Rather than cling desperately and even hysterically to the “Tradition,” forge it into a weapon, or reduce its mystery to a formula or blueprint or ideology, the religious can inhabit their traditions more freely, and free-ingly, perhaps than ever before. In this sense, they can “go deeper” into their historic and still-sacred tradition and traditions, bend their surprisingly elastic boundaries, explore their unplumbed and ever-shifting depths, learn to live without closure and with ambiguity, and in this self-liberation from Tradition, paradoxically, deepen their own purchase on who they are and what they are called to be.



This brings me to the next pivotal term/concept/practice in our conference, namely, “Dialogue.” What do we think we know about dialogue at this stage of the conversation, and about IRD in particular? Further, what has dialogue to do with conflict resolution, conflict management, conflict transformation, and peacebuilding—those different but overlapping moments within a continuous feedback loop?

As to these questions, I think we know from the best experience and practice-based, theoretically rich literatures and conversations, that dialogue in its fullest sense is a risk-laden, potentially self-transformative, sustained encounter with the Other. That is, the partner in any dialogue across seemingly vast gulfs of understanding and appreciation takes the risk of hospitality—the risk of welcoming the Other into her home, as it were, into the place of solemnity and joy and even confusion or turmoil, where a glimpse of the heart and soul is possible. This is a precious space, and it takes courage to invite anyone there. The host offers nothing less, then, than an encounter with the Other, who after all may one day become a friend and worthy confidant, but begins most likely as a stranger, perhaps in some way an intruder, or even an enemy. An encounter, moreover, implies some level of mutuality: I am open to Thou. Not only do I seek understanding, I offer it.

May we also risk genuine empathy? If so, I run the destabilizing, frightening risk of being personally altered by the encounter.

Enacting such risks, the peacebuilders tell us, takes time. If the attempted dialogue come after waves of mistrust that have cascaded into violence, the trust that is required may take many years, even generations to build.

And when we focus this fullest form of dialogue on matters of religious conviction or practice, matters that make explicit claims to ultimacy—this is my soul, remember, it is not up for compromise—well, one can see how arduous this task can become if it is not to be trivial.



Three rather practical (which is to say political) questions arise at this juncture, which bear on our third term, democracy:

  • Question #1: How, then, can this exacting form of dialogue have on-the-ground implications in the short-term, which is the narrow temporal window of politics? Perhaps it cannot. These ‘dialogue of civilization’ exchanges are not superficial, they are not merely or even primarily about “getting-to-yes” in order to resolve an immediate conflict. Rather, they are about the underlying disease that separates us, not the symptoms.
  • Question #2: How can such forms of dialogue move from a play of words, often exchanged among elites, to an actual encounter that is not limited to the few but extends to and includes the many?
  • Question # 3: And, closely related: how does dialogue move from encounter to collaboration?

At Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, we have long grappled with these pivotal challenges to effective peacebuilding, and our responses have taken concrete, quasi-institutional shape in the formation first of the transnational Catholic Peacebuilding Network, and, subsequently, the Contending Modernities Initiative, which is one of the hosts of this conference. The CPN focuses on grassroots dialogue and collaboration, with a necessary ingredient of elite participation in the person of some high-ranking Catholic bishops (though in the places like Colombia, Great Lakes Africa and Mindanao, Philippines, where the CPN has concentrated its activities, these bishops do not arrive at the project sites in limousines with an extensive military escort).

CM has attempted to address the second question: how does dialogue move beyond sharing of words to sharing of action and activism?

What, then, are the limits of even the robust form of IRD, as it has been described by theorists like Gadamer and scholar-practitioners like Volf?

First, a fair question arises: why even bother with IRD? Why attempt to translate this airy concept into a politically relevant discourse, or, rather more modestly, why ask it to inform political discourse and policymaking in any way?

An answer to the ‘why bother?’ question may be that IRD, surprisingly, is the primary means by which modern religions can become more traditionally religious, more themselves, as it were. Only in the risky (but ultimately rewarding) encounter with the Other can religions reveal to themselves, and take fuller purchase of, the human and yet still sacred depths of meaning and wisdom they embody. For this embodiment proves inclusive, finally, of the experiences, attitudes, biases, blind spots, and also startling, life-giving insights of the believing, practicing community—the people, the demos— who have borne the tradition across generations and ages, intermittently ignoring it, distorting it, traducing it, reifying “it.”

Can religions deepen their capacity for constructive internal contestation through the risk of self-critical, self-transformative dialogue? Can religions come to terms with their gaps, blind spots, and biases and move beyond them? Can religions harness the rapid pace of transformation characteristic of modernity and not, in the end, lose their souls?

Affirmations in this direction could well have relevance for systems of self-governance that grow beyond the superficial to engage the people of a democracy more consistently and meaningfully.

What, then, is necessary for IRD to realize its potential?

First, the dialogue must be intra-religious and intra-cultural as well as inter-religious and inter-cultural. Second, religious dialogue must unfold as a cultural dialogue, with the variety of secular cultures participating just as keenly as the variety of religious cultures do. Third, religious/cultural dialogue in practice must in these ways become a primary means for religious traditions to become self-critical and truly, actively dialogic in nature.

To elaborate on these prescriptions: Earlier I suggested that whenever we use the terms “the secular” and “the religious” we must imagine invisible scare quotes surrounding them, rather than imply that they are separate, distinct, separable conditions and modes of being in the modern world. Even at the extremes—the hardened atheist, the equally dogmatic true believer—the binary does not begin to describe the nuances of our co-imbricated religious and secular identities.

Which is to say that “dialogue,” if it is to be sufficiently robust across religions and cultures as to be meaningful, must also be sufficiently robust within religions and cultures. It is to recognize “the secular” both as a quasi-independent cultural configuration on its own, essential as a participant in any so-called “dialogue of civilizations,” and as an often unacknowledged but nonetheless very active partner within the religious mode of dialogue.

Self-interrogation is the pivot point upon which the turn from isolable contemplation to active engagement and collaboration depends. If religions are incapable of, or reluctant to, retrieve the full history of their active exclusion and exploitation of others in the service of some supposedly divinely mandated obligation, the cherished dialogue partner—the Other who is becoming less objectified and more interpersonal—is trusted to cast a harsh and dreadful light upon the eclipse of memory and offer a vigorous reminder that “the transcendent” and “the human” can never be set in opposition. Concrete episodes such as the complex histories of mission, for example— including missionary schools’ roles in generating fierce nationalisms and disseminating particular conceptions of democracy and liberalism—cannot be replaced by an assertion of common shared values across so-called civilizations. 

To return at the end to our fundamental question: If my framing of a genuine dialogue of cultures as a self-purifying encounter with the Other is correct, how can it be made relevant to foreign policy and national self-interest? How can such an intimate and transformative encounter escape the fate of instrumentalization by those not directly engaged in the dialogue, those not taking the risk of self-disclosure? Where are the places of convergence between these seemingly disparate practices: sustained religious self-interrogation, the achievement of deeper intra- and cross-cultural understanding, the growth of more fully inclusive and participatory democracies, and the formulation of wiser foreign policies?

Our colleagues Petito, Driessen, and Ferrara have suggested that one thread with the potential to bind these multiple and seemingly divergent goals together is, to quote Michael, “the role being played in all of this by the rise of the everyday religious citizen, [including] the new interactions created between religious individuals who have been empowered by democracy.” In light of this emergent phenomenon, he calls for “a new language to understand these new interactions and to advance them.”

Yes, we need to learn more about this new everyday religious citizen and her potentially transformative role in disrupting the gross imbalance of power and voice that has plagued and, sadly, continues to plague democracies and religions alike. For it is a rare and courageous voice that holds power and still will proclaim: The Truth is an Encounter!

May 31, 2016

Scott Appleby
Scott Appleby (Ph.D. University of Chicago, 1985) is the Marilyn Keough Dean of Notre Dame’s Keough School of Global Affairs. Appleby, a professor of history at Notre Dame, is a scholar of global religion who has been a member of Notre Dame’s faculty since 1994. He graduated from Notre Dame in 1978 and received master’s and Ph.D. degrees in history from the University of Chicago. From 2000-2014, he served as the Regan Director of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. Appleby co-directs, with Ebrahim Moosa and Atalia Omer, Contending Modernities, a major multi-year project to examine the interaction among Catholic, Muslim, and secular forces in the modern world.

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