Living Traditions and Universal Conviviality

Prospects and Challenges for Peace in Multireligious Communities

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Roland Faber, Santiago Slabodsky
  • Lanham, MD: 
    Lexington Books
    , March
     2016.
     284 pages.
     $95.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781498513357.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

“Conviviality” is a rich concept that resonates strongly with the moral and political implications of religious diversity in a global context, and yet, it has not been a focal topic in discussions of religious pluralism and interreligious dialogue. Living Traditions and Universal Conviviality aims to correct this oversight. The essays contained therein articulate how conviviality is an important normative ideal capable of guiding multireligious relations. In doing so, many of the essays focus on concrete moral and political challenges, which results in a refreshing level of specificity that is often missing from theories of religious pluralism preoccupied with the possibility of validating diverse religious claims or documenting universal values. 

Editors Roland Faber and Santiago Slabodsky offer the vague definition of multireligious conviviality as living together in both “depth and breadth” (x), which is framed as an alternative to the “rhetoric of tolerance,” and what contributor Catherine Keller alludes to as an ethic of “mere friendliness” (142). Thankfully, the essays themselves help to clarify this initially obtuse definition by identifying religious and philosophical reasons that justify robust and ongoing engagement between the world’s religions, a justification grounded in recognition of a pressing need to cultivate structures of reciprocity capable of fostering awareness of shared moral concerns between those who lack substantive religious connections. 

Alfred North Whitehead’s process philosophy has a major influence in most of these essays. By adopting a process approach the text, as a whole, poses two different questions. First, how can the world’s religious traditions illuminate what universal conviviality might entail for our current global context? Second, how can process thought in particular help illuminate sources of conviviality within these traditions? While differing responses to this first question present promising new avenues for those interested in promoting a culture of religious pluralism, responses to the second introduce significant, as yet unaddressed, problems.

The text is organized into three sections. In the first, conviviality is identified as a central principle within the Jewish, Muslim, Bahai’i, Wiccan, and Daoist traditions. The second section explores how the goal of conviviality functions as a fresh lens for interpreting familiar political challenges. Helene Slessarev-Jamir prescribes a new form of religious “inclusivism,” while Daniel Dombrowski suggests turning to process philosopher Charles Hartshorne’s understanding of conviviality as a way to mend tensions internal to political liberalism. C. Robert Mesle and Keller underscore how multireligious conviviality can ameliorate social pathologies such as unrestrained desire, or a recently reanimated “crusader complex” exhibited by Western biases against Islam. The final section examines the common dangers threatening all life on the planet. Faber utilizes Whitehead as a resource for explaining how “the future of civilization” itself depends upon religions fostering the “unity of civilization” (178). Jacob Erickson eschews themes of unity and harmony in favor of the “messiness” of an existence intertwined with the fragile and dangerous conditions of nature. Tokiyuki Nobuhara and Brianne Donaldson explain how conviviality entails a deep connection with our natural surroundings expressed within representations of the divine or the experience of religious naturalism. Lastly, Steve Odin describes how conviviality exemplifies the cognitive practice of mutual “perspective-taking” required for achieving the Buddhist and Confucian ideals of harmony. 

These essays offer a valuable new perspective for evaluating interreligious relations by synthesizing existing philosophical, historical, and theological frameworks. In doing so, they highlight how conviviality is as a tacit value common to intersecting theories and interpretations of religious pluralism, thereby lending a level of coherence to a field of discourse often missing a consistent theoretical framework. This results in a fairly eclectic collection, but it is an eclecticism that produces moments of genuine insight. Dombrowski’s recovery of an ethic of care intrinsic to political liberalism, for instance, points toward promising new directions for envisioning interreligious relations as sources of moral motivation within a political community. Additionally, Keller’s and Erickson’s essays exhibit a clear-eyed realism that counter-balance the highly irenic character of many normative positions one finds articulated within prevailing theories of interreligious dialogue. 

Unfortunately, the manner in which process thought is incorporated in many of the essays overshadows these insights. Process functions as a kind of hermeneutical key for better understanding the role and meaning of conviviality. However, the authority of process thought itself, and its compatibility with specific religious teachings, is never explained or defended; it is simply assumed. Therefore, the arguments are unlikely to persuade readers who question whether or not process thought is an appropriate model for analyzing interreligious relations. Moreover, invoking Whitehead presents a deeper methodological problem ignored throughout, which is a problem related to his treatment of “religion” as a monolithic, self-evident category. By ascribing a normative character to religion when he defines it as the “unity of civilization,” or prescribes the need to resist religion’s “savage” impulses, Whitehead’s framework evokes questions of what qualifies as religion on these grounds, and whether certain religious types or expressions ought to be excluded from the realm(s) of convivial relations proposed by these authors. Those familiar with the troubled colonialist past formative to the comparative study of religion will no doubt recognize certain motifs in Whitehead’s writings that recall that history. However, rather than addressing these issues many of these essays replicate them. If process thought either aims for or requires “‘[looking] through’ the culture-bound expressions to the underlying similarities” (39), then the question of whether it is a suitable framework for analyzing religious pluralism is a critically important one. Given what we now know about how the promotion of universal “similarities” is associated with justifications for the exclusion of certain religious communities from equal recognition in a diverse public sphere, it is unclear how process thought is reconcilable with a commitment to conviviality that is equally appreciative of intractable differences constitutive of productive relations between diverse peoples. By not addressing these issues, the intellectual appeal of these essays is unlikely to extend beyond those who already sympathize with the application of a process thought to comparative religious study.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Devin O'Rourke is a doctoral candidate in Religious Ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Date of Review: 
April 24, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Roland Faber is Kilsby Family/John B. Cobb, Jr. professor of process studies at Claremont School of Theology, professor of religion and philosophy at Claremont Graduate University, executive codirector of the Center for Process Studies, and founder and executive director of the Whitehead Research Project.

Santiago Slabodsky is Florence and Robert Kaufman chair in Jewish studies and assistant professor of religion at Hofstra University–New York.

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