Saying what we mean: Methodological reflections on Dale Cannon's Six Ways of Being Religious.
Dale Cannon's Six Ways of Being Religious offers a typology by which to make sense of the world's religious diversity and to facilitate interreligious dialogue. Despite some promising Innovations, a case is made that Cannon's proposals do not go far enough to resolve the perplexing tensions among the academic method used in religious studies, the normative practice of interreligious dialogue, and any kind of substantive endorsement of religious pluralism. In fact, Cannon's good Intentions are stymied by a methodological bottleneck: Too many incompatible requirements have been imposed on his project. In response, constructive arguments are offered regarding the necessity and the nature of the relationship between interreligious dialogue and religious pluralism. These arguments illumine and challenge the often contradictory assumptions of the contemporary academic milieu in this field. The essay concludes by proposing some alternative methodological orientations for consideration in the future.
Readers of this journal who consider themselves to be members of the academic community and also committed to interreligious dialogue may experience difficulties when they try to figure out whether the justifications for engaging in these two activities are compatible, whether the foundations of such activities are ultimately shared. A great many of us have such difficulties, and, according to the methods of academic work, we should. The affirmation of any normative judgment--in this case, an affirmation of the value of interreligious dialogue, and the proponent's implied endorsement of events where it occurs and, therefore, endorsement of his or her participation in such events as well-- appears to conflict with the neutrality and objectivity that the academic scholar is supposed to take in normative matters. This methodological dilemma is compounded if the scholar in question considers him or herself also to be a member of a particular religious community--which, after all, is usually the precondition and the reason for involvement in interreligious dialogues--and seeks to understand the meaning of the world's religious diversity in a way that does not conflict with the perspective of his or her own community. It seems a wonder that anyone in this position could find anything to say with clarity and confidence.
Nevertheless, many believe they have found something to say, and in recent years this has been notably true in the field of interreligious dialogue and the so-called "theology of religions" or "comparative theology," where there has been a proliferation of works. These authors must either be ignoring the problems noted here, or they have found a solution to them that has escaped the rest of us-or they have rushed in where angels fear to tread.
Dale Cannon has proposed a framework for the study of religions that addresses important aspects of these dilemmas. In some respects he has done so wisely, thus making his work worthy of praise and, therefore, also of scrutiny. The work in question is his long, complex, but enlightening exploration of Six Ways of Being Religious, which he offers as the central feature of A Framework for Comparative Studies of Religion, as the subtitle puts it. (1) Cannon is to be commended for taking on an ambitions set of tasks and addressing them with a thoughtfulness that is far-reaching and careful. His effort gives us an excellent opportunity to consider how one scholar has attempted to navigate the methodological mine-field we all face.
I will briefly outline Cannon's project and then move by stages to enlarge the scope of this essay to an identification and Critical examination of the underlying principles of the book, especially as they bear on the difficulties indicated above. Some of the topics pursued here perhaps exceed the scope of concerns to which Cannon would most like to direct our attention. However, the combination of methodological commitments--both academic and normative--by which he chooses to frame his project are also widely shared. For this reason, Cannon should be gratified that the effort he has invested in this project may help us all explore larger horizons of what it is that we, too, might dare to say.
I. Orientation to Cannon's Book
As presented at the outset of the Preface, the intended goal of the book is to "assist ... efforts to make sense of' the diversity within and between the world's religions (p. x). He soon adds a second, practical goal: to "foster mutual understanding, communication, and dialogue between persons having different religious orientations and different ways of being religious" (p. xii). Cannon tells us that his approach to the first goal is phenomenological and aims to combine empathy (doing justice to each insider's view) and objectivity (interpreting each of those views in the context of the whole of human religious behavior) (p. xi; also see pp. 17-21). He states that the book is not intended as a defense of any normative interpretation of the comparative truth or value of the religions he discusses. However, he also briefly emphasizes that inquiries of this kind are "important," and says he perceives the book as a preparation for the pursuit of such inquiries (p. xiii; also see pp. 23, 158-159, 372-375).
As the book's title indicates, the centerpiece of Cannon's effort to comprehend both the diversity and the commonality of all religions is a theoretical framework. He proposes that there are basically six ways of being religious and that the unique content of every religion demonstrates the presence and interaction of all six ways. We should expect, however, that in every concrete expression of human religious behavior some of these six ways are more pronounced and influential, while the others may be less emphasized or even of marginal significance. They are never available apart from the content of specific traditions nor apart from the influence of the other religious ways Cannon is describing. Rather, he proposes, they are conceptual constructs that offer a vantage point from which better to identify points of significance, commonality, and difference in any set of religious data, especially in comparative situations.
Cannon labels these six ways as the ways of(l) sacred rite, (2) right action, (3) devotion, (4) shamanic mediation, (5) mystical quest, and (6) reasoned inquiry. Readers may recognize that this is an approach for which Cannon is indebted, as he acknowledges, to the "pioneering work" (p. xiii) of the late Frederick J. Streng in Understanding Religious Life. (2) Cannon has not simply repackaged Streng's typology of four traditional ways of being religious, although the concrete histories and lived experiences from which both authors draw their typologies and the framework they use to link these typologies share much in common.
The first half of the book consists of an extended elaboration of these six ways of being religious and of the nature and implications of the theoretical framework within which these six ways are located. Illustrations are provided from quite a number of religions and from various religious aspects of American culture that are both traditional and nontraditional. Cannon includes reflections on the merits of the framework, on how it can be used most effectively, and on how it could be abused.
The second half of the book is devoted to providing examples of each of the six ways of being religious in two major religions--Buddhism and Christianity--through primary text excerpts, including both classic and contemporary sources, both erudite and popular texts. This material functions to illustrate the diversity of human religious behavior, to demonstrate that major religions (assuming we can generalize from these two) are not monochromatic but have many facets and resources, and to reveal that even the most pointed contrasts in the specific content of different religions cannot obscure significant formal parallels between them--if we only look in the right places and with the right lenses.
It may give some indication of how Cannon uses these six ways if we note, with regard to Buddhism and Christianity, that he concludes that the Theravada tradition emphasizes the ways of mystical quest, reasoned inquiry, and right action and that the Mahayana sects each tend, variously, to emphasize one of the six ways of being religious, which is made the hub of fusions with other subsidiary ways. In Christianity, he most strongly links Orthodoxy to sacred rite and mystical quest, Roman Catholicism to sacred rite (seen as the route of access to the other five ways), and Protestantism to devotion and right action. Summing up the Buddhist life as one of discovering truth and the Christian life as one of receiving revealed truth, Cannon suggests this is why, overall, Buddhism may be most associated with the ways of mystical quest and reasoned inquiry and Christianity with the ways of sacred rite and devotion.
The book contains a wealth of keen insights, amply demonstrating that Cannon is adept at pairing theoretical constructs with specific, historical data. He is a competent guide through many religions, especially in the application of his "six ways" framework to the whole of Buddhism and Christianity in Chapters 7 and 8, respectively, which contain some of the most thorough yet succinct summaries of complex material about these religions that I have seen. A great deal of reflection and creativity has gone into fleshing out the apparent consequences and implications of this sophisticated theoretical construct. His elaboration of six ways of being religious does much to curb inclinations we all share to reduce the many worlds of human religious behavior to the convenience of one model and one definition. Insofar as the book builds on the foundation laid by Streng, it is also a fitting demonstration of his legacy.
II. Virtues, Vices, and Religious Common Sense as Features of Cannon's "Six Ways" Framework
Cannon proposes some intriguing and possibly significant innovations in the principles of phenomenology, his stated methodological approach. He proposes that it is possible to identify what he calls a "religious common sense," which refers, he says in Chapter 2, to aspects of the human condition that are acknowledged in all religions (pp. 41-42). However, no characterization of this common sense is offered in Chapter 2; the reader is told this appears in Chapter 5. There we learn of an equally intriguing notion: that we should be able to identify the excellent and degraded forms-that is, the virtues and vices--of each of the six ways of being religious (pp. 121-127). Only careful reading makes it plain that knowledge of these virtues and vices constitutes, for Cannon, the religious common sense to which he had earlier referred. (Only one statement, on p. 116, explicitly connects the two passages; other references to the commonsensical nature of this knowledge might imply such a connection but are not as clea r about this important move.) The content he gives this common sense is necessarily a generic, formal content, one that Cannon offers tentatively, inviting further reflection and correction by others. The content is arranged on three axes of positive and negative normative judgments: competence/incompetence in mastery of the skills and resources of a given tradition, balance/imbalance of the finite and infinite, and selflessness/egoism in the conduct of life. This typology offers us, Cannon believes, ways of identifying variations in the quality with which the six ways are performed or embodied. Chapter 5 closes with provocative diagrammatic outlines of the characteristic features of these virtues and vices in each of the six ways. (3)
This set of ideas--about a pan-human reservoir of commonsensical wisdom regarding virtuous and vicious ways of being religious--would understandably arouse a variety of questions and even objections among many academic scholars, and Cannon is quick to respond. One particularly significant objection (see p. 128) might be paraphrased as follows: In a book supposedly grounded in the phenomenological approach, which is noted for encouraging a suspension of normative judgments, is it not improper for an author to suggest that certain ideas constitute common sense about religious virtues and vices? Curiously, Cannon does not choose to reply by clarifying that these are not offered as his own normative judgments but simply as his (phenomenologically legitimate) reporting of the judgments of others who practice these religious
Instead, Cannon takes a riskier, but also more interesting and provocative stance. He very strongly implies that his representation of these vices and virtues also constitutes his own normative judgments. He explicitly justifies his exercise of such judgment within a phenomenological framework by arguing that the suspension or bracketing of normative judgment has only a temporary, preventative function: to keep assumptions that may be unfair or prejudicial or simply untrue from leading to premature judgments about the data. Once that danger is past, Cannon tells us, when we see through what was formerly opaque, we are entitled, indeed obligated, according to phenomenology, to make normative judgments about the common world we all share. (4)
Cannon's replies to several anticipated objections culminate in some understated observations, such as the following, which seem to burst with implications and consequences that are left unexplored:
Religious insiders live and carry on their religious practices in the same commonsense world that other human beings live in [which, we should note, includes the academic researchers who observe them]. Moreover, to the extent that they appeal to common sense (as they very often do) in sorting out what is qualitatively more or less virtuous in religious practice, it is to a common sense that is in principle shared with persons who are not simply (or necessarily) insiders to their tradition but who are in a position [as academic scholars could claim to be] to discriminate among the same sorts of things. (p. 130)
In the culture of contemporary academia, the author of such a statement or of the preceding arguments would be exposed to immediate skepticism (if not worse) by those who think it inappropriate for scholars to make any such judgments or who question whether such work still remains within the scope of the phenomenological method. The implications of Cannon's position are indeed far-reaching. By proposing to legitimize normative judgments about the good and bad forms of six ways of being religious, Cannon is indicating that he is prepared, in principle (and that we should be, too), to make judgments about any of the concrete forms of religious life we might encounter by measuring them against this religious common sense.
III. Cannon on the Meaning of Religious Diversity
Recall, as was noted earlier, that at the beginning of his book Cannon takes the formal position of declining to address this particular issue. He says that the book will not engage in inquiries concerning whether any religion is more truthful than others, whether all are true, or none are true, etc., even though he says he regards such questions as important. He simply indicates that his "six ways" framework is intended "to facilitate the reader's inquiry" and that he does "not wish to present the reader with. . . [his] predigested interpretations" (p. xiii). In short, Cannon hopes his readers "will be better equipped to understand the diversity of religious practice for themselves" and that the book will thereby "provide some of the essential groundwork for coming to answers" (p. xiii). Thus, his silence is presented not as a loss for his readers but as a gain: We can be aided by his "six ways" framework, he seems to say, but his normative silence will allow us to draw our own conclusions freely, without c oncern for the prejudicial influence of the author.
It is difficult to be satisfied by this explanation for his silence on this topic. First, having just observed that Cannon is not opposed to making normative judgments in a phenomenological context, indeed, that he considers it an obligation (provided that inaccurate or unfair presuppositions have been eliminated), it is surprising to see him decline to address a normative topic that is integral to the pursuit of the book's stated central objective--"to make sense of this [religious] diversity and to understand it from within" (p. x). Second, Cannon already has many predecessors whose goal was to bracket normative judgments in order first to accumulate accurate descriptive information; we need to go beyond them, not just cover the same ground again. Finally, it is doubtful that anyone can absolutely achieve such bracketing or should attempt to do so. Cannon himself says as much when he defends, in several places, a concept of objectivity that "is inescapably an enterprise of discerning value judgment" (p. 12 9). Consideration of these factors leads one to wonder whether Cannon might reconsider what could have been--and perhaps what should have been--the scope of the book: Why, indeed, should we consider normative questions about the meaning of religious diversity to be significant, as he asserts to be the case, and how, exactly, would this book be of assistance when those questions are addressed?
Moreover--and this opens another dimension of the book and of this essay--despite his pledge of silence regarding the truth value of the world's religions, Cannon plunges forward with many statements, particularly in Chapters 1, 2, 5 and 15, that collectively and strongly suggest (and several times seem to stop just short of explicitly asserting) that he is a religions pluralist--that he considers all religions, at least in their virtuous forms, to be equally valid ways of perceiving and encountering what is sacred.
The evidence for this religious pluralism can be seen, for example, in an early discussion aimed at characterizing religion, wherein Cannon explains that, in his book, "on occasion, religion will be referred to as 'a means of getting in touch with ultimate reality,' and religious practices as 'means of seeking at-onement with ultimate reality'" (p. 25). He goes on to explain that "atonement," or "being 'at one with' ultimate reality," can also be expressed as "'reconciled with,' 'in right or appropriate relation with,' 'in rapport with,' 'in agreement with,' 'in harmony with,' 'in conformity to,' and 'in union with'--with the understanding that the precise characterization of this state of atonement will differ from one tradition to another" (p. 25). Even if we acknowledge the differences among these and other expressions found in the world's religions, Cannon has postulated a striking degree of coherence in the intention of religions and religious behaviors across all traditions. In another example a few pa ges later, he writes that
religion or religious practice involves a system of symbols and symbolic actions for drawing near to and coming into right relationship with ultimate reality. This implies that, at least as far as the approach here taken [in his book] is concerned, all religions and religious experiences are in some essential sense symbolically mediated or symbolically conditioned. (p. 32)
His support for religious pluralism is implied in graphic as well as textual form: after portraying in a diagram (p. 9) how the four yogas of Hinduism converge, according to Hindu belief, on what he labels "Hinduism's Ultimate Reality," he later presents two diagrams of his own "six ways" framework (pp. 11 and 30) in which these six ways are shown converging on "Ultimate Reality" in exactly the same way. It is true that neither the Hindu perception of merging Hindu paths nor Cannon's portrayed convergence of six "ways of being religious," can be equated exactly with a claim about the convergence of all world religions in one common truth. However, since Cannon considers all religions to be composed of some combination of these same six ways anyway, and since, with regard to Hinduism, Cannon goes so far as to say that "the four yogas ... correspond directly to four of the six ways of being religious" (p. 10, my emphasis), one wonders how significant the differences are by which he insists on insulating his "s ix ways" framework from any pluralist connotation. (5)
In the final analysis, although Cannon declares that he will not address questions about the meaning of the world's religious diversity, he nevertheless discloses, perhaps unknowingly, an inclination to regard religious pluralism as a true account of that meaning. In the last four pages of the text (pp. 372-375), Cannon explicitly poses questions five times as to whether the thesis of religious pluralism is valid, either in general or with regard to comparisons of Buddhism and Christianity in particular, but he never answers them. Ironically, this simultaneously demonstrates how much he is interested in and even concerned with the meaning of that diversity, yet how little apparent relevance the book finally has (at least in Cannon's estimation) for clarifying that meaning. In these final pages Cannon clearly states again that his "six ways" framework "is not designed" (p. 373) to answer any such normative question about Buddhism and Christianity. He even adds that "the phrase, 'ultimate reality,' is simply a place-holder, a variable; the phrase does not directly identify a substantive reality," since ultimate reality "is to all appearances something quite different" in different traditions (p. 372). Does it not signify something, however, that he used "ultimate reality" instead of "big rock" or "purple elephant"? Clearly he has some substantive idea concerning this reality, an idea that he withholds from his readers on the basis of the (possibly convenient) observation that each tradition has "quite different" perceptions of this reality.
In short, it seems more than coincidence that there is an uncanny resemblance between the central claim of religious pluralism and Cannon's phenomenological observation that religions participants appear to be pointing, through various expressions, to an ultimate reality and that all religions behavior, despite its variety, is essentially aimed at facilitating some form of (re)union between humans and that ultimate reality. The heap of hints that Cannon leaves is too large to be ignored: We, in our different religions are all talking about and responding to the same ultimate reality, the same ultimate conditions of life. In fact, what else can be meant by presuming that any reader of the book will understand Cannon's account that there is a common sense that is shared not only by everyone within each "way" but even by anyone in any "way"?
At this point, the following broad questions emerge: First, if Cannon thinks this pluralism is the most accurate representation of reality, is his silence about it sufficiently justified by his apparent desire not to get in the way of our own conclusion-drawing? Second, can this pluralism be consistent with a phenomenology that is opposed to making such normative judgments, either in principle (the standard version of phenomenology) or as a temporary step to prevent prejudice and error (according to Cannon's revision)? If he can show us that it is, in fact, consistent with his phenomenology, why (again) does he not declare this judgment? Alternatively, if it is not consistent, does that explain why he appears to be so restrained in his affirmation of religious pluralism? More importantly, why would he remain loyal to a method that will not permit him to address what is, certainly for many today, one of the most vital topics of inquiry in the study of religion and what surely is a topic that will come up in a ny frank "dialogue between persons having different religious orientations" (p. xii), which he says he hopes to promote--namely, the ultimate meaning of the world's religious diversity?
IV. Methodological Bottleneck
These questions deserve answers. The following are a number of observations about the text that have been chosen for their relevance to Cannon's discussion of these matters. What is particularly significant about them is that each involves some apparent conflict within the text or between Cannon's text and widely held assumptions, which corroborates the sense that he is attempting to push too many incompatible or unreconciled commitments into his project.
A. Interreligious Dialogue
The value of this activity is the single norm that Cannon seems to affirm most candidly. In fact, the norm was so important to his project that he had originally planned to add the term to his subtitle, making it "A Framework for Comparative Studies of Religion and Interreligious Dialogue." (6) Three assertions are fairly evident in various places throughout the book: first, that one purpose, and perhaps the most significant justification, of understanding the empirical dimensions of religious diversity is to facilitate interreligious dialogue; second, that one goal of interreligious dialogue, in turn, is to extend our understanding of the ultimate (that is, religious) meaning of the world's religious diversity; and third, that his book is intended to help interpret that diversity by serving as a preparation for such dialogue, but not as a direct contribution to it (see pp. xii, 12, 149, 153, and Chap. 15). Significantly, he also bonds together the value of interreligious dialogue and a methodological premis e. In the Preface, Cannon says that "the academic study of religion, as understood and practiced here, shades imperceptibly into inter-religious dialogue" (p. xii), because one of his central aims is to "foster mutual understanding...between persons having...different ways of being religious" (ibid.).
However, Cannon does not provide a systematic justification for why interreligious dialogue is worth doing, nor does he explain how it proceeds or its comprehensive relationship to the other components and assumptions of his framework. While he does not neglect these topics completely, it seems reasonable to expect a more thorough treatment of them in a book that is intended to have theoretical and practical relevance to actual dialogue. To put it differently, Cannon seems to be very quick to presume the value of interreligious dialogue but too shy to declare and defend clearly what that value is. If he thinks that, at this point in history, we can presuppose the achievement of these accounts regarding interreligious dialogue, or that they have no significant implications for the main tasks to which he devotes most of his attention, some reconsideration seems in order. Moreover, it is odd that Cannon simultaneously seems quite comfortable endorsing the value of interreligious dialogue as a practice (and even implies in the last quotation that, instead of a methodological gulch separating descriptive neutrality and normative advocacy, there is a smooth continuum that joins them), yet does not make an assertion about the meaning of the world's religious diversity. If the former is a normative judgment that the academic scholar is permitted to make, why not the latter?
B. Cannon's Identification with a Particular Religious Community
In his Preface, Cannon states that he is a practicing Christian, although he does not make clear why he thought he should say so, nor is it clear, from the perspective of his phenomenological method, that it would be necessary to do so. Whatever the specific reason, Cannon leaves the vague impression that he thinks his own religious beliefs necessarily prejudice or limit his academic work in some undesirable way. (7) This, however, is a debatable premise. (8) In fact, Cannon seems to reject that premise in other passages, since, as quoted above, he states that "the academic study of religion... shades imperceptibly into interreligious dialogue" (p. xii), which obviously requires participants to acknowledge their religious identification publicly.
C. What Does "Different" Mean?
Regarding the meaning of the world's religious diversity, when Cannon says that the answers to which we will eventually come will be "answers of one's own" (p. xiii), he implies that the answers will be individually, and legitimately, different. Does this mean "different" as determined simply by one's unique vantage point on the same reality others see, or does it mean answers that might be different in logically incompatible ways? Cannon's presupposition here is not clear but would seem to make a significant difference. For, if our interpretations of the world's religious diversity are logically incompatible, this has a troublingly relativistic echo to it, which is the more confusing, since, as indicated here much earlier (in the quotation from p. 130 in II, above), Cannon seems to presume a shared, single reality in which we all exist that would embrace and make sense of all such differences--a "commonsense world" shared by both "religious insiders" and "other human beings." (9)
D. More than One Framework of Analysis
Early in the book, Cannon makes the following statement to indicate the normative limitations of his "six ways" framework:
The theoretical framework of six ways of being religious does not assume that there is a single Ultimate Reality referred to by the different conceptions of ultimate reality in all traditions... The framework is deliberately articulated in such a way as to avoid begging all such metaphysical and theological questions. These are legitimate questions, worthy of serious investigation. The theory does not attempt to answer them, however. (p. 23)
Then, several pages later, he tells us that religious common sense is "discoverable by almost anyone in any tradition who has a modicum of thoughtful sensitivity, curiosity, open-mindedness, and empathy" (p. 41).
Between these two passages we seem to have journeyed from a rather positivistic empiricism to an almost romantic affirmation of the epistemic sufficiency of human nature and tradition; from a very clear (and historically very familiar) dichotomy between normative and descriptive tasks to a naturalistic confidence that the human spirit can bridge all such dichotomies. Which of these perspectives is more authentically Cannon's own? Although it would be fair to point out that the former is a statement of methodology and the latter a statement of philosophical anthropology, why are they so utterly different? If Cannon believes that these perspectives are compatible, he needs to demonstrate that.
As it is, despite the accessibility he ascribes to religious common sense, Cannon manages to avoid acknowledging that this has any normative consequences. He tells us that religious common sense is "relatively independent of the theological considerations ... that divide one tradition from another, a basis on which many of the differences between religious viewpoints and practices can be mutually understood, allowed for, handled amicably, and in some cases reconciled" (p. 41). What can it possibly mean for any element of religious common sense to be "relatively" independent of theological substance? Or, is this an academic fig leaf to cover what are clearly valued uses of interreligious dialogue, in this case the desire "amicably" to reconcile conflicts between religious traditions?
E. What Is the Value of Cannon's Book as a Preparation for Normative Inquiry?
It has been noted that Cannon indicates, more than once, that, although his book cannot, on the basis of his stated principles, address normative questions about the meaning of the world's religious diversity, the "six ways" framework can, nevertheless, contribute to that goal indirectly. At the end of the book, Cannon adds to this the observation that the framework goes "a long way toward sorting out much of precisely what has to be sorted out to come up with a responsible answer" to such normative questions (p. 373). However, nothing in what follows, in the book's closing pages, appears to state or recapitulate what, indeed, has been sorted out that would clarify the utility of his framework for pursuing such normative tasks. (10)
The most meaningful and succinct statements I can find regarding the book's role in normative inquiry are not even in this book but in a short essay that Cannon wrote on behalf of the book's thesis. Two points stand out. First, he speaks of "unnecessary clashes of religious sensibilities" that can and often do thwart interreligious dialogue when the encounter involves "crossing generic ways," that is, when it involves interfacing persons from dissimilar "ways" of being religious. (11) Such clashes, he tells us, can be avoided by using this framework to insure, instead, that those who meet come from similar "ways" of being religious and, thus, offer the best hope of accord.
I offer four brief responses: (1) This seems to be a rather elementary proposal and, perhaps, a self-evident one as well (although his framework may facilitate recognition of the point). (2) Was this utility of the framework intended to be a result of the book's analysis (as the article implies) or a presupposition that was illustrated by the text (as the book seems to suggest)? (3) Such an application of the framework also presumes the guiding hand of unseen, transcendent directors (possibly us, the scholars?), who deftly prevent encounters that will become "clashes," while encouraging those that will allow participants to discover happily how much they share in common. Is that really a role that Cannon wants scholars to take, and will it actually contribute to dialogue or, rather, to a self-fulfilling expectation? (4) Moreover, does not such a scene once again imply some kind of endorsement of religious pluralism--which, at every opportunity, Cannon avoids explicitly confirming?
The second point of note in Cannon's 1998 essay is his emphasis on the thesis that there exists "a fund of commonsense religious wisdom," which "is capable of serving as an interreligious basis for recognition of a number of generic virtues and generic vices" precisely because it identifies points of commonality among people who practice a given "way" of being religions in different religious traditions. (12) Cannon's stated silence on normative matters notwithstanding, he is claiming, clearly and emphatically, the existence of a normative body of religious common sense, which he believes to be substantiated by his neutral and objective framework of "six ways" of being religious.
F. Summary and Commentary
The above survey of problematic conflicts in Cannon's text can be recapitulated and brought into sharper focus by highlighting his four central claims, consisting of two principles (as starting points) and two types of judgments (as ending points). Regarding principles: (1) Cannon declares that his phenomenological method is unable to help us in the most vital normative questions, such as whether any ultimate reality exists ("By itself, the phenomenological study of religion is not competent to answer whether there really is an ultimate reality or what its nature happens to be" [p. 23]) and what the ultimate truth status or value status of different religions is ("the framework of ways of being religious is not designed to provide an answer to this question" [p. 373]). (2) Yet, Cannon also declares that, when properly conceived, phenomenology is compatible with, indeed, finally requires, normative judgments. ("Rightly understood, then, the phenomenoloy of religion does not reject normative evaluation and jud gment as such, but only premature and insufficiently discriminating judgment" [p. 128; also see p. 115.) He states further that normative questions about the truth and value status of diverse religions are legitimate and important and deserve answers (pp. xiii, 23), and he even poses these questions himself (On pp. 372-375).
Regarding judgments about religions that are based on these principles: (3) Cannon proposes a value-neutral framework of "six ways" of being religious as a means to make sense of the world's religious diversity (especially see p. 23: "the framework avoid[s] ... all ... metaphysical and theological questions"). (4) Yet, Cannon also makes the following value-laden judgments: (a) Interreligious dialogue is a valuable human practice (although he does not explain how or why), and (b) humans have a religious common sense, which they--and Cannon--believe is good to employ. In my view he also implicitly affirms that (c) religious pluralism is true.
It is apparent that the two principles identified above co-exist uncomfortably and that his judgments about religions appear first to prohibit, and then to exercise, normative or value-laden assertions because his two principles lead to contrary results and cannot both be satisfied. Is Cannon as confused as he leaves this reader, or is there some rational explanation for this situation?
Two possible readings of Cannon's text, both broad in scope, can be considered. According to the first reading, there are no necessary contradictions among these principles and judgments because he has no philosophical objection to making normative judgments on the basis of phenomenological principles; some topics of normative inquiry are not addressed (particularly regarding the meaning of the world's religious diversity), which is due simply to some (still unidentified) tactical or practical reason(s) for excluding them from this book. Phenomenology is viewed, in this interpretation of the book, as a method able to assist in some but not all normative inquiries (for reasons that remain unclear). Additional methodologies (for example, Christian theological methods, or other normatively religious methods) might be required and can be utilized, although any such utilization takes the researcher beyond the pale of academic legitimacy.
More specifically, according to this interpretation, Cannon would be doing nothing more than normatively endorsing interreligious dialogue and religious common sense while asserting that legitimate practical considerations permit him to refrain--at least in this work--from taking any additional normative positions, especially those that concern the validity or relationship of the views that might be expressed in such a dialogue or that might result from it, such as a view that only one religion is true or that all are true. To explain this position, Cannon might assert that, even though his book contains some normative judgments, it is primarily intended (as he seems to say in his Preface) as a prolegomenon to normative inquiries. Or, as a college educator, he might contend that, insofar as his book is offered as a textbook for young minds, it is more important to respect their autonomy than to foist on them the possibly erroneous "wisdom" of their elders. Or, he may have decided he simply had enough objecti ves to accomplish in his book already and no room for more.
Except for brief comments in the Preface and a few other places, Cannon nowhere discusses how or why he chose certain topics to address and not others, even though they are all related to this general field. Consequently, we do not know from Cannon whether it was only a practical consideration--rather than a philosophical objection instead (or in addition)--that prevented him from addressing key normative questions. However, it is difficult to imagine how any practical consideration could bear so much weight--not in a field of such profound normative significance as comparative religion, not at a time when we all are trying to figure out how to move beyond dubious neutralities and floating subjectivities, and, in Cannon's case, not in a book so careful and exhaustive in other respects. In other words, in the present era it is doubtful whether there can any longer be a convincing tactical or practical reason, offered either by Cannon or on his behalf, to defer normative consideration of the world's religious d iversity from a work that addresses a task no smaller than seeking to understand the religious differences we encounter and to promote interreligious dialogue. Besides, nothing is ever just a prolegomenon, and sometimes the wisdom of elders is exactly what youth need.
Of course, none of this need stop Cannon from asserting that practical considerations alone have dictated his agenda. If he can demonstrate that this is so--in particular, by clarifying his positions regarding the matters surveyed earlier in this section--he is certainly entitled to limit the scope of his book in whatever way he wishes.
Until then, however, a second, alternative reading of the perplexing mixture of principles and judgments in Cannon's book is also possible. In this reading, his silence on certain questions is indeed based on some philosophical objection to making normative judgments--either a blanket objection to all normative questions (which he obviously violates in some instances, apparently for reasons he considers compelling) or an objection only to certain kinds of normative judgments (which would account for the unexplained exceptions to his declared policy of complete silence on normative questions). In this reading of his text, the exact nature of this philosophical objection remains unclear, but it is presumed to be some version of the first principle in the above summary, according to which no phenomenological method, and possibly no method of any kind, is able to help address normative questions because, in principle, there is no rational way to do so.
No matter which of these two readings seems more plausible, it is evident that the ambiguities, conflicts, or internal contradictions in Cannon's text only highlight more clearly what should be the supreme test of his framework of "six ways" of being religious: If that framework and its presuppositions are, in principle, as effective as the author supposes at freeing us from inaccurate and unfair preconceptions of the world's religions--and, thus, just as effective at eliminating or preventing the occurrence of contradictory normative judgments about those religions--he should be prepared to identify the ultimate conclusions to be drawn from its application or, at least, to anticipate for us the general nature of those conclusions. If successful, such a test would also be the most significant demonstration of the framework's productivity.
V. The Endorsement of Interreligious Dialogue Entails the Endorsement of Religious Pluralism in Some Form
We have observed that Cannon endorses the nonnative value of interreligious dialogue; we have also noted his claim that neither his "six ways" framework nor the principles of phenomenology are capable of addressing normative questions about the truth status of the world's religions. Apparently, he considers these positions to be compatible. Up to this point, the central purpose of my comments has been to question the reasonableness of Cannon's belief in this compatibility, on the basis of his own text. In addition, however, a positive argument, based on an independent reason, can be offered to support the view that one cannot reasonably endorse interreligious dialogue and still maintain that this has no effect on conclusions regarding the truth status of the world's religions. More specifically, anyone who shares Cannon's affirmation of interreligious dialogue as a good practice cannot logically disregard the value of religious pluralism, in some form, as a true philosophical position. I mean here to broaden the scope of the term "religious pluralism" so that it includes any belief that finds at least some measure of accuracy and value in all religious claims, not just an equal accuracy or value, as the term is usually understood today.
The reason why the value of dialogue entails the value of pluralism can be brought to light by examining an underlying issue: the relationship between what we know and how we know it. This issue can be investigated by comparing two differing accounts of the relationship between dialogue and pluralism--both of which are supported by Cannon's book in different places, as the material presented in the preceding section makes clear.
In one account of the relationship between dialogue and pluralism, a decision to endorse dialogue as a practice, yet be silent about the comparative truth status of different religions, reflects the legacy of the Enlightenment. According to a very rough rendition of that legacy, "how" we understand reality does not contain any implications for, or any manifestations of, "what" it is we come to understand about reality. With epistemology and ontology thus disengaged, Cannon or any of us could believe we grasp the "how" of human understanding very well, while finding our knowledge of the "what" to be quite limited, particularly regarding knowledge of anything beyond the purely empirical scope, and perhaps forever to remain stymied. According to a second account, there is no clear line separating means from end, because, to generalize from Cannon's own statement quoted earlier, one "shades imperceptibly into" the other. That is, "how" we seek understanding is so essentially related to "what" we come to understan d that these two cannot be dealt with independently: Epistemology and ontology are mutually referential in a single reality we all share, large enough to include and limit all the separate and different realities we continually fashion and revise.
The choice between these two accounts is relevant here because only according to the first account ("how we understand is not related to what we understand") could anyone reasonably maintain the view that Cannon apparently takes and that I challenge: that it is academically justifiable to endorse interreligious dialogue (viewed here as a form of the "how" of human understanding, as the means by which we understand our world) without thereby entailing a particular position for or against the alleged validity of religious pluralism (viewed here as a claim about part of the "what" of human understanding, a claim about the true nature of some aspect of our world).
However, the second perception of human understanding ("how we understand and what we understand are related") is the more fundamental and inclusive, and perhaps the only valid one, because when we engage in dialogue with other persons, we are seeking greater understanding not just of our separate and different realities but also--and more importantly--of the common reality we share with them. This is the common reality by which we can judge in what respects our separate and differing realities are not valid and must therefore be revised in order neither to deceive ourselves nor to stand before others in error. Of course, there can be, and often are, other reasons as well for engaging in some form of dialogue. However, they are all fragmentary or even debased versions of dialogue when compared to its full and authentic meaning.
If we proceed with the notion that those most interested in facilitating dialogue between and among religions do so with an openness to the possibility that, at the foundation of our shared common reality, lies that which is sacred (however it be described), and that, as such, the sacred is something that can in some way be evident to every human being and present in every religion, I conclude that to endorse interreligious dialogue necessarily means, in the final analysis, to embrace some kind of religious pluralism. That is, the practice of genuine interreligious dialogue logically entails affirmation of religious pluralism in some form. This is the consequence, in the field of the human study of the sacred, of acknowledging that the "how" of dialogue--by which differing parties can seek to resolve normative questions they both care about--is necessarily bonded to the "what" of our common cosmos--the subject matter of the dialogue, which we seek to understand better and to which we hope to respond ever mor e appropriately.
The most concrete illustration of this association between dialogue and pluralism is to consider whether it could be reasonable to say that the practice of genuine dialogue is compatible with an evil intent: I do not think it can be compatible. For example, no one would endorse the idea that we ought to expect genuine dialogue to occur between an oppressor and his or her victim, at least not as long as the oppressor intends never truly to examine or test the legitimacy of his or her authority. At worst, such "dialogue" will merely help to conceal and sanction the very oppression that should be challenged; at best, it seems to lead to the logically ludicrous (but historically perennial) result of a kinder, gentler oppressor and a more cooperative victim. On the contrary, the only legitimate value that dialogue has in such a situation, and the only core meaning the term can have, is as a means by which to transform both parties away from certain false claims about reality that the oppressor has been making and on which the exploitation of the victim has been justified. Similarly, in interreligious dialogue the claims of a proselyte who sees no value in any view but his or her own is not a view with which others can reconcile, integrate, or fuse their own perspective but one that opposes the very basis of dialogue. When such a person claims to be pursuing dialogue, he or she is actually pursuing any information about the other party that will eventually help validate the proselyte's own claims and refute differing claims--specifically, by demonstrating that differing claims are incorrigibly incompatible with the proselyte's assertions and, therefore, false.
Of course, this is not Cannon's intention at all. My point, however, is that, since he clearly endorses interreligious dialogue, the effect of the argument I have offered here is that this endorsement also entails his endorsement of religious pluralism in some form--contrary to his own silence on this matter. It would therefore be philosophically short-sighted to insist, as he has, on disengaging affirmation of interreligious dialogue from academic consideration of religious pluralism.
Since the beginning of this section, I have broadened the meaning of religious pluralism and have stressed that the endorsement of interreligious dialogue entails the endorsement of some form of religious pluralism. At least three such forms can be identified, and there is presently a growing need to distinguish them, as well. One form could be called "equalism," which is what most people seem to mean by "religious pluralism" today (whether they agree with it or not), and which I have therefore presumed to be the way in which the term "religious pluralism" would be understood by readers throughout the discussion of Cannon's work that preceded this section. It also appears, in most instances, to be the version of pluralism that, according to our earlier analysis, Cannon implicitly affirms. This is the idea that all religions are equally accurate or equally valid regarding the truth about what is sacred; it has also been used to mean that all religions are equally resourceful for the growth of human spiritualit y or equally liberating for life in community. Whatever its scope, this equality of religions is explained by the belief that all religious claims about the sacred, despite the appearance of being different or even incompatible, are actually various ways of identifying the same reality.
Other religious pluralists, however, would say that the religions do not point to the same reality but to incommensurable--and, therefore, incomparable--realities. Such a view, which I will label "multiplism," could be considered a second form of religious pluralism, for even though its proponents do not seek or expect to find any final agreement among religious claims, or any ultimate common ground among the realities to which the many religions give witness, they, too, accord validity and value to each tradition's claims, although without comparing them in any way.
A third form of pluralism is the one usually labelled the "inclusivist" position. This may seem odd, since inclusivism is generally posed in Christian theological discussions as an alternative to pluralism. However, I believe it should be considered another form of pluralism because it does accord some truth and merit to all religious traditions; what distinguishes this form is that it does so in differing degrees, and it invariably assigns to the proponent's own tradition the highest position in such a hierarchy.
In short, all three positions--equalism, multiplism, (13) and inclusivism--ought to be considered versions of religious pluralism, because they all acknowledge some degree of truth and, therefore, of value in all the various religious traditions. Although this is not a comprehensive definition of religious pluralism, it seems a useful reflection of the common denominator shared by all three positions. Since affirmation of interreligious dialogue (and, of course, actual engagement in dialogue or, at least, the readiness to be so engaged) necessarily entails affirmation of some form of religious pluralism, it is logically possible for someone to express pluralism in any of these forms--or, conceivably, in some other form of pluralism instead.
Having said that, however, I believe that a practical dedication to dialogue and record of concrete experience of dialogue can tell us much about what is possible when people of different religions come together--and also do more to clarify the nature of religious pluralism. In my own opinion, we learn that, if the participants who are engaged in dialogue intend to seek the truth about reality and about each other, to report it sincerely, and, until investigation resolves or relocates the matter in contention, always to accept the possible validity of anything the other party has to say, then it is impossible for two parties to enter into dialogue about the same thing (such as the sacred) and end up--that is, they cannot ultimately end up--with conflicting normative conclusions about it. In particular, any incompatible norms discovered by the parties will come to be seen as compatible on the basis of yet other, more inclusive norms. In short, given enough time and nondefensiveness, they will both come to see , and agree upon, their shared reality, which is necessarily a part of the larger reality we all share. (14)
In the end, no other meaning or role for dialogue makes as much sense; therefore, the label of "religious pluralism" is most accurately applied to those views of religious diversity that are compatible with it. (15) Whether any of the three forms of pluralism described above are compatible with this concept of dialogue is a question beyond the scope of this essay. Indeed, compatibility with it should not be presupposed. However, I have no doubt that there are multiplists and inclusivists who have some reason to dispute this view of dialogue. Even the conventional position of today's equalist, with which, of these three forms, I am probably in the greatest agreement, has yet to pursue constructively and comprehensively the implications of such dialogue for how we conceive of the sacred and for how we understand our common reality.
Nor is this the place to pursue that constructive task in a comprehensive fashion. However, the first step might be to pay the same careful attention to differences among and within religions that are unequally valuable to human ends as to those different presentations of the sacred within all religions, which should be regarded as equally valid and equally valuable. An invitation to make such judgments about religious differences may seem an odd burden--if not an inconsistent and even offensive one--to place on interreligious dialogue. However, it is nothing more or less than a reminder that dialogue is not merely a neutral tool placed at the service of some unrelated goal, no matter how grand or desirable that goal may be. Dialogue is itself an embodiment of the goal it seeks to reach--the discovery and validation of our shared, common reality, in all its sacred as well as mundane dimensions, no matter how much or how little those dimensions may be understood. It should not surprise us, then, to discover t hat dialogue is as saturated with the same obligations and opportunities to discern what is true and good as are to be found in the entire world of human judgments. On this basis, we may be able to make better sense, not to mention better use, of the obvious observation that not all human apprehensions of the sacred are equally accurate accounts of reality, equally resourceful for the spirit, or equally liberating for community (as Cannon's own notions about a religious common sense also make plain).
Of course, no one would say that such judgments about religions should, or could, be regarded as absolute or certain: Being human in origin, these judgments are themselves subject to the same humanly created and limiting historical conditions that affect the claims made by all religions. Without this qualification, anyone can exaggerate their own competence or misperceive their own obligation to make judgments about religious differences. However, neither the danger of abusing our power to judge, nor even the bare fact that, as human beings, we continually and often unconsciously do judge, is a reason to terminate dialogue, or, as happens more often, to artificially constrain dialogue and redirect it to alien ends. Such actions essentially reveal our dread of judging--and thus also our fear of dialogue itself--as though we thought our wills were so powerful or our intentions so evil that the process of dialogue, the very lifeblood of our common reality, would not continue to envelop, mold, and guide us.
Dialogue is, indeed, saturated with risks as well as with obligations and opportunities. However, fundamentally, what is genuine dialogue but the continual entrusting of our judgments to the process of sharing with others because that process can never be completely stopped? That process is not only inevitable but also trustworthy, because it unfailingly reveals to us, and is rooted in, the common reality in which we all exist and from which we can never become completely lost. When we judge, then, none of us should expect any human being, including a scholar, to speak only from the pinnacle of omniscience or else to remain utterly silent when he or she reaches any lesser height. Our only duty--and our greatest privilege, as well--is to reason as wisely as we can.
VI. The Presumptions of our Age
I do not think that the unresolved methodological problems that appear in Cannon's book are unique to him. There appear to be many scholars of religion who, despite their public cautiousness on this matter, consider the validity of religious pluralism in some form (usually its "equalist" form) to be, in fact, a foregone conclusion--to be, as Cannon would say, a pillar of religious common sense. Yet, they do not say so. Is it possible that, in addition to factors already examined, more is going on than meets the eye, more than even these scholars realize? (16) Perhaps this silence is maintained simply as a means by which to conform scholarly work to certain presuppositions of the age and of our academic milieu--in particular, two powerful and widely shared, but incompatible, positions: on the one hand, the value put on interreligious dialogue (often accompanied by some form of endorsement, explicitly or implicitly, of "equalist" religious pluralism) and, on the other hand, the academic taboo on declaring any such normative judgment. (17) In general, very little attention is devoted to reconciling, much less to acknowledging, the apparent contradiction between these presuppositions. As a result, we are left to consider that not only the legitimacy but also the compatibility of these presuppositions may be widely thought to have that form of self-evident validity that is often referred to these days as "political correctness."
Of course, this form of political correctness demonstrates a form of unthinking conformity that all of us commit to some degree. The constructive reason for pointing it out is to induce in all of us some new self-reflection: Does not each of us operate with some unacknowledged premises that we presume are proper to hold but that may instead be making our work more complicated than it needs to be? Perhaps the best evidence of this in the matter at hand is the fact that there seems to be a widely held presumption to which, ironically, no one will admit: If you do good phenomenological study of the world's religions, you will gravitate toward a normative affirmation of the "equalist" form of religious pluralism. A great many scholars all but say so plainly. Nearly all academically reputable textbooks about world religions endorse nothing but a phenomenological perspective and praise the openness to new horizons that this supposedly gives us--and then repeat the mantra that good phenomenology also prohibits norm ative judgments.
There is, in other words, evidence of an incipient contradiction hounding the work done in our field these days, the contradiction between the political correctness of "equalist" religious pluralism in the public mind (since no one wants to appear either unfair to differing religious viewpoints or entirely anti religious), and the equally politically correct dedication to the principle of neutrality in the academic mind. This latter principle, it should be noted, often turns out to mean nothing more than the suspension of any judgment that is not endorsed by nearly everyone--that is, one that is not already politically correct. Today, "equalist" pluralism has largely attained that status in one or more of the communities to which many of us belong. In short, when previously unidentified premises are woven together and then result in an identifiable contradiction, it is time to acknowledge the situation and resolve it.(18)
As all of us contemplate recent efforts to grope toward a deeper and fuller understanding of the significance of the world's religious diversity--the first time humans have attempted this task on such a scale--it is simply "common sense" to believe there has to be a better way to pursue this important objective responsibly than has generally been attempted so far within the academy. However, if we are deciding (as our collective conduct often seems to imply) that this objective cannot be pursued and if we already know that we cannot expect to arrive at any meaningful public resolution of the question about the meaning of the world's religious diversity, it would behoove us to consider one of two unappealing alternatives: Either religious pluralism is not as viable as we thought (and consequently may unravel, and should do so, eventually to be replaced by something else), or no one is really interested in making candid assessments about the world's religious diversity after all, in which case we can indefinite ly continue to endorse, from either fear or favor, whatever is politically correct without ever really knowing, or caring, whether we are deceiving ourselves.
We perform a disservice to our colleagues and our readers when we fail to put our claims on the table of public discussion, where truth, if it is indeed truth, will ultimately vindicate itself and does not need our protection. (The truth, in order to be regarded as truth, may indeed be more than a representation of what is "out there" and may require our creative involvement as well, but that is a different matter.) If we consider truth to be so fragile that writers must obscure their prejudices to protect their readers whenever anything daring is said--if writers cannot trust readers to be genuine partners in dialogue--then we should concede that we all live in separate, unconnected realities and call off all further inquiry. Alternatively, perhaps we really have no words by which to give witness to what we think is true; if that is the case, we are more impoverished and have more serious problems than we thought when our aim was the more modest goal of simply trying to make sense of the world's multiplicity of religions.
Rather than face any of these uncomfortable possibilities, we often seem to approach the world's religious diversity by yielding to solutions that promise to let us have our cake and eat it too--such as believing we can be both neutral academics and committed partisans about the same topic. If we dare to conclude that this is a logical impossibility, then no options seem to remain. Feeling paralyzed by the intractable incompatibility of all the methodological requirements and commitments to which we considered ourselves obligated, we increasingly distrust our capacity to make any substantive assertions and are reduced to endlessly observing our predicament. Perhaps, in reality, instead of having lost any power to assert something, we have simply allowed it to atrophy from disuse.
This is not intended to be a paean to theological bravery or an incitement to inspirational imagination. Nor is it being suggested in any way that the ideas we embrace should be segregated from a universal rationality or that we are allowed to relax our intolerance of inconsistency in order to gain a pot of porridge. Quite the contrary, all our reflections ought to be held, candidly and ultimately, to the same hard-headed criteria; if the product of that labor also turns out to be genuinely inspiring, we can be thankful.
VII. Is Phenomenology Adequate, or Should We Look for Another Method?
The reflections offered here raise the following question about any framework, such as Cannon's, built on the phenomenological method. If the method is so excellent, why does it appear to be so irrelevant to what Cannon and most of us acknowledge are some of the most significant questions in the study of religion? These include the following: Does something sacred really exist? If so, does one religion provide access to this ultimate reality best of all, or do all see it differently but equally well (or equally poorly)? And, if it be thought that there is a kind of equality here, at least with regard to representing the sacred to human minds and lives, how far ought we to accept the implied presupposition that one reality can be equally understood through different, even incompatible, representations of that reality without violating the law of logic that prohibits contradiction? Or, if religions cannot be compared at all in the manner presumed by these questions, that is, by reference to some reality, to so me aspect of our shared, common reality how else should we define their essence, and how should we meaningfully demarcate the scope and limit of the things on which we put the label of "religion "? (19) If phenomenology is indispensable to every academic approach to the study of religion and may even be the preeminent method of such study, yet cannot help us address these questions, does it not seem odd? (20)
Perhaps phenomenology is not the method that we should use to pursue our inquiries. Obviously, there will always be ways in which it is best to bracket our prejudgments in order to further understand something that is foreign to us. It is equally clear that a rough distinction between factual (empirical) judgments and normative (evaluative) judgments is useful. These legacies of phenomenology are now widely shared and relatively independent of the philosophical movement and historical period in which they first appeared. Nevertheless, maintaining and using them should not be confused with erasing or discarding our preconceptions or with imagining that what we call factual judgments are ever only factual or with believing that our normative judgments occur in mental worlds unconnected to physical realities. Yet, that is often how phenomenologically rooted methods are incarnated, probably in a mistaken effort to emulate the objectivity that has characterized the "hard" sciences. That may not be the fault of phe nomenology; then again, one is forced to wonder about a method that seems perennially to allow us to fall into this predicament.
If phenomenology simply will not permit normative inquiries, much less be of any significant help in addressing them, what makes anyone think a work based on the phenomenological method can be regarded as adequate? If, on the contrary, it can permit such inquiries but no one dares to use it for that purpose, we have to ask whether the method is too rigid to inspire sufficient respect or its users are too distracted by extraneous loyalties or anxieties. Or, maybe we have the cart before the horse: Since no method--at least, no variation of phenomenology--seems to satisfy all the claims to which we have believed we must submit ourselves, perhaps we should stop pursuing a quest that will not bear any more fruit and initiate a different course, one that is admittedly risky and that perhaps flirts with betraying the very hard-headedness I endorsed at the end of the preceding section. We could simply begin doing what we think needs to be done--that is, making the normative judgments that seem to be commonsensical-- and consider afterward whether the results do, in fact, sufficiently represent the realities we encounter and sufficiently accomplish the tasks we need to complete. (This sequence is essentially what every human action involves and would thus lead us to recognize theorizing as a form of praxis.) Doing so may at least enable us to speak with more of the clarity and confidence that seem to be lacking today. Doing so may also make things more muddy and less reliable, but maybe we have come to a point today where such risks are worth the potential gain.
If this seems too rash, if we need a little more structure or security, perhaps we could instead ask which approach is more beneficial in the long run for discovering truth: a methodological approach that, under the label of phenomenology, aims to bracket all preconceived normative judgments, perhaps never to return to them, or a more hermeneutical approach that would allow us to do what we will covertly do anyway--that is, apply our preconceptions to the real world around us and to the people and ideas we meet, yet that will encourage us to do so as a way of simultaneously acknowledging, mapping, and risking those preconceptions in our encounter with reality. In such an event, the preconceptions of both parties in a dialogue will be transformed in some measure, a process that will confirm, revise, or replace the notions with which they each started and, thus, lead both closer to truth. For either party to interpret that process as a competition to see "who had to bend less, us or them?" or to use phenomenolo gy to try to gain the ultimate ascendence (by claiming to be neither bendable nor one who bends others) is once again to confuse a zealous obeisance to objectivity with knowledge of reality. It is also to miss the point: There is no final gauge for measuring "who bent less." There are only more encounters, in which we learn that we are all bending. This does not entail a diminishing knowledge of reality (as is alleged in relativism) but a diminishing reliance on the projections that we heretofore presumed were real. It leads to the only possible knowledge of reality. It leads to the realization that a framework that will make sense of a dialogue between strangers, which neither conceals nor idolizes the differences they find, a framework that they themselves can survey in the course of dialogue, one that can be as small or as large as their questions require--such a framework is all we can ever find, all we need to find, and perhaps even all we are truly looking for. (21)
Dale Cannon has written a provocative and useful book. My criticisms notwithstanding, he has taken some risks and by doing so has offered us new and helpful insights, including some that should be allowed to boast a measure of clarity and confidence. That is a result that might inspire the rest of us to take further steps in the same direction. The issues I have raised perhaps exceed what could reasonably be expected of an author to address. To that extent they cannot be lodged as criticisms but will, I hope, be regarded as appreciative compliments for the opportunity his work offers for this level of discussion. They are also offered in the spirit of a dedication, which I hope is shared, not simply to finding the truth but also to learning how best to be a witness to the truth. Sometimes, that is the harder task, or perhaps it always is, since it requires us to consider to whom we seek to be witnesses and why, instead of presuming that private omniscience is our goal. However, the anxieties we all feel over whether we are adequately and correctly doing our work or successfully navigating around any of the other many obstacles we encounter should not be allowed to become a greater concern than actually making progress toward our goal. Even that anxiety can be put in its place by the recognition that, whether it is because of our efforts or in spite of them, the truth always seems to get out.
(1.) Dale Cannon, Sb: Ways of Being Religious: A Framework for Comparative Studies of Religion (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Co., 1996) Quotations from this book will be noted throughout the essay by page numbers in parentheses; Cannon's italics are preserved except in the case of the term "ultimate reality," which he italicizes only to indicate that it appears in his glossary as a variable used in place of terms specific to each religious tradition (seep. 379).
(2.) Frederick J. Streng, Understanding Religious Life, 3rd ed. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Co., 1985).
(3.) We may note in passing however, that it is confusing to be told on p. 42 that the common sense of one religious "way" should not be confused with common sense of other "ways," then to be informed elsewhere that there is "sufficient overlap" (p. 123) among the concepts of balance/imbalance in different religious "ways," which suggests that the same may be true of the other two axes of common sense. If so, this would imply the existence of a generic, shared religious common sense in all religious "ways"--which is what Cannon's introduction to the term suggests on p.41, but exactly what he said on p.42 we should not presume.
(4.) "Thus phenomenological neutrality is not meant to be a permanent orientation to take toward religious phenomena, as if it were the only just or responsible posture to take. On the contrary, it is meant to be a temporary strategy.. Indeed, to remain permanently in a posture of suspended judgment is to merit the charge of irresponsibility, of refusing to take a stand on matters that call for a stand to be taken. It is to pretend that one lives outside the common world all of us share, religious and nonreligious. Rightly understood, then, the phenomenology of religion does not reject normative evaluation and judgment as such, but only premature and insufficiently discriminating judgment" (p. 128: also see p. 115 for similar statements).
(5.) A related point can be made about the ambiguity of cannon's' intention in some of his statements. In many of these statements about how ultimate reality is perceived in various religious communities, some qualifying phrase (such as "[f]or participants," or "as far as participants' understanding is concerned," both on p.22) is included in order to inform readers that he is reporting these views, not necessarily concurring with them. However, in many other statements, such as the quotation from p.32 in my preceding paragraph, such a qualifying phrase is absent. While this may indicate nothing more than a grammatical convenience, the collective effect of its frequent occurrence is to arouse questions about the author's true intention. Consider, e.g., the following sentence, which lacks such a qualifying phrase: "As far as this book is concerned, a 'way of being religious' is one characteristic manner and pattern among others of drawing near to and coming into right or appropriate relationship with ultimate reality" (p. 39). When such sentences appear many times, are we to conclude this is Cannon's view or a report on the view of others? In another sentence, by contrast, where a qualifying phrase is used, we are told that the religious common sense that Cannon postulates can be recognized in the "finite set of generic possibilities built into the human condition" by which "participants go about (or might go about) getting in touch with, and attaining at-onement with, what that tradition takes to be ultimate reality" (p. 41, my emphasis), The italicized phrase is the only thing distinguishing this statement from being just like the preceding quotation and the only thing distinguishing it from being an affirmation by Cannon of religious pluralism. Since qualifying phrases are both present and absent in various places throughout the book, without apparent rhyme or reason, one begins to wonder if their use really makes a point or is intended merely to mute his implied endorsement of religious pluralism.
(6.) Dale Cannon, "Religious Taxonomy, Academia, and Interreligious Dialogue," Buddhist-Christian Studies, vol. 18 (1998), p. 115.
(7.) This becomes quite evident when Cannon acknowledges that he may "fall short of the neutrality, empathy, and objectivity" (p. 21) at which he is aiming in his book. (Are neutrality and empathy compatible?) Why might be fall short? Apparently he thinks he might because the book "may at times reflect a more Christian, or a more modem Western bias than I realize" (p. 21). Does this mean Christian belief is incompatible with "neutrality, empathy' [or] objectivity," and that, instead, it contains a bias? What is a bias, in Cannon's or anyone else's view? Is it a prejudice that results in an error, or is it a prejudice that is simply a perspective different from others' perspectives but just as legitimate?
(8.) Moreover, if Cannon implicitly employs either of these reasons as a way of justifying his silence about normative questions, it would seem to follow that those same Christian beliefs have probably already prejudiced his descriptive account of religions. Yet, he obviously did not decide to refrain entirely form writing a book. On hat grounds then, did he think he could safely proceed to say anything?
(9.) There is a further difficulty with a relativistic reading of Cannon's intentions. If he is urging us to form our own normative conclusions with the assistance of his descriptive material, and if the conclusions drawn by various readers proved to be contradictory ones, should we really consider that to be a gain, or would it mean his material has no inherent normative significance and can mean all things to all people--in which case it offers us no aid at all? If these outcomes are not desirable, it would seem better to hear from the author his own candid conclusions first, which we may then compare to those we draw ourselves, and which we should still be able to do, despite Cannon's apparent concern to protect us from his prejudices.
(10.) It is also relevant to make a broader point here, viz., that there does not appear to be an adequate correspondence between Cannon's original question (roughly: how can we make sense of religious differences and commonalities?) and the substance of his answer (every form of human religiosity demonstrates, and unequally emphasizes, some combination of six different ways of being religious). That answer focuses on one kind of difference among human expressions of religion--the kind that permits a cataloguing of features--with almost no consideration of anything else, such as their historical or gas, moral consequences, or philosophical significance. If Cannon has posed a question--and employed a method--that does not fully correspond to the text he has, in fad created, then either the question should be reconstructed to fit the result, or the original question deserves a different answer.
(11.) "Cannon, "Religious Taxonomy, p. 119.
(12.) Ibid. Cannon bases this conclusion on "unsystematic observation and anecdotal evidence plus phenomenological consideration of the range of possible variation of any given practice," which he claims were facilitated by his "investigation into the...generic ways of being religious in different traditions," i.e., by his framework of "six ways of being religious" (ibid., p. 119). The book does not stress, as the essay does, the idea that the tool of the "six ways" framework substantiates and explains his thesis regarding the existence of a religious common sense.
(13.) I apologize for using these two inelegant terms until better labels can be devised.
(14.) On this basis, it can also be noted that the position that Christian writers have labelled (and sometimes embraced) as the "exclusivist" position appears to be ruled out utterly by anyone who endorses interreligious dialogue: Communication with someone whose position you are convinced is fundamentally incorrect and without merit will never rise to the level of genuine dialogue.
(15.) I would like to think that this vision of dialogue may also be the one toward which Cannon wants to move but that be found difficult to accomplish in this book (at least from my perspective). At any rate, the operation of such dialogue is precisely the point at which some sort of framework, such as the one Carmon has proposed, could eventually prove to be particularly useful--i.e., by providing a map, containing both descriptive and normative dimensions, of the varied forms in which humans have responded to what is sacred.
(16.) One potentially contributing factor may be that a significant segment of the Christian community (at least in Western societies), and of some other religious communities as well, considers the general thesis of "equalist" pluralism to be untrue and even heretical because it with their "inclusivist" pluralism or with their "exclusivism"). Under these circumstances scholars--like Cannon--who consider "equalist" pluralism to be commonsensical would ultimately be required to make an unpleasant choice: either to retract this conclusion about the commonsensical character of "equalist" pluralism or to assert explicitly that other views are mistaken in some significant way. It may be natural to prefer to avoid that choices, but it cannot be deferred indefinitely.
(17.) It may be true ihat Cannon, for his part, nowhere explicitly commits himself to observing this taboo of academia regarding normative judgments. It may also be true that any evidence that could be offered to show that he observes this prohibition has an alternative explanation. However, we have noted various statements that appear to imply or support it, particularly statements on p. xiii and 158-159 (in addition, refer to the quotations from p.23 in note 20, below). It is also noteworthy, in terms of circumstantial evidence, that the taboo was generated by the same Enlightenment that attempted categorically to distinguish between the "how" and the "what" of human understanding, a distinction that, as noted earlier Cannon may be employing,
(18.) This politically correct reasoning to which we all feel drawn or pushed can be represented by the following theses (which may also tell us something about the confused state of the academic study of religion and reveal why it is not surprising that few of us dare to take many risks): All responsible claims (or, as Cannon might say, "all virtuous claims") about ultimate reality are equally valid is followed by the assertion, All attempts to express those claims are ineluctably flawed because the horizon of all who make such claims, and especially of all scholarly researchers who report those claims (and who ought to know this better than anybody else) is finite. fallible. and far from omniscient. From these premises, the following conclusion seems to be frequently drawn: While all responsible claims about ultimate reality are valid, none of them should ever be accounted for, and perhaps none should even be explicitly uttered. Oddly, many scholars apply this conclusion only to themselves and their collea gues and never to persons exercising their identity as religious believers, who are permitted to say anything they wait to about ultimate reality, apparently because their assertions, while taken seriously as data, are not taken seriously as claims about the data. It seems that only scholars are permitted to enter that inner sanctum where people strike themselves dumb.
(19.) It will be obvious that I have already offered some ideas of my own in this essay to at least some of these questions. Whether or not there is any merit in those proposals, it is more important here to draw attention to these questions, however they might be stated, because they remain unresolved, at least in part because they are still not being addressed candidly.
(20.) Cannon is quite frank about the limits of phenomenology. As was noted above in IV-F he states that "[b]y itself; the phenomenological study of religion is not competent to answer whether there really is an ultimate reality or what its nature happens to be." In what follows, he concludes that allegedly work that addresses this question "has overstepped its role and... engaged in thelogizing." Conversely, "[t]heology is a respectable activity in its place, but it should not pass itself off as having readied its conclusions on phenomenological grounds" (p. 23). Cannon's assertion of a limit to the utility of phenomenology implicitly maintains the academic taboo on normative judgments. However, he remains stranded with fundamental questions he cannot address, apparently because he has not found--or will not use--any other method that will help. As for theology (and without pretending to address whether or how theology might be relevant to this situation), it is enough to wonder how Cannon allows himself, o n the one hand, to regard theology as a" respectable activity," while, on the other, to maintain that it is automatically irrelevant to inquiry into the existence of nature of "an ultimate reality" At any rate, this methodological vacuum seems to be the only explanation of the fact that Cannon never acts on the conviction that "the academic study of religion...shades imperceptibly into inter-religious dialogue" (p. xii), why he never demonstrates the alternative form of objectivity that "is inescapably an enterprise of discerning value judgment" (p. 129), and why, therefore, he seems to be unable to explore the merging of academic study with any other normative affirmation or activity.
(21.) This paragraph represents some implications for the theory and practice of dialogue that I believe can be derived from, or at least supported by, Hans-Georg Gadamer's hermeneutical perspective and that deserve further exploration in the concrete setting of interreligious dialogue. The meaning and practice of dialogue in Gadamer's philosophy are explored in Matthew Foster, Gadamer and Practical Philosophy: The Hermeneutics of Moral Confidence, A.A.R. Studies in Religion 64 (Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1991 [distributed by Oxford University Press]). My explicit utilization of his philosophical hermeneutics in reflection on the practice of interreligious dialogue and on the interpretation of the world's religious diversity is in progress.
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|Author:||Foster, Matthew R.|
|Publication:||Journal of Ecumenical Studies|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2000|
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