From a paper I presented recently at the Wesleyan Theological Society annual meeting in Nashville. My fellow presenters were Steve Long of Marquette University and Andy Kinsey, a UMC pastor in Indiana. Brent Laytham of Northpark Theological Seminary was the moderator. Our overall theme was: “The Danger of Dialogue is Not Knowing Your Own Doctrine.”



I used to teach a world religions course at a college that offered night classes to working adults. The students were mostly professionals—computer programmers, police officers, HR managers—who were completing their bachelor’s degree or earning a second one so they could get a promotion or a raise. The bureaucrat who hired me assumed I knew something about world religions since I had an advanced degree in theology, and because I needed the money and the teaching experience, I didn’t let on otherwise.

What I decided early on was that if the students (and I) were going to learn anything about Hinduism or Buddhism or Islam, we would have to get our noses out of the textbook and our bodies out of the classroom. So we visited local temples and mandirs and mosques. We observed Muslims at prayer, Hindus performing puja. We talked to the people engaged in these activities, who were generous and patient with our questions and our ignorance.

My favorite was Dharmesh, a software engineer at IBM and a devout Hindu. He was our guide through the Tuesday evening rituals we would often observe. Over the course of two or three years, I took several groups of students to his community’s mandir in a renovated trucking warehouse in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina.  What quickly became evident, when Dharmesh talked about Hinduism, was that the category of “religion” was strange to his way of thinking about and practicing his “faith,” to his way of being a Hindu.

My students wanted to know how his “religion”—what they took to be his “personal beliefs” about God and stuff—affected, say, his home life or his job. But Dharmesh found the questions and the assumptions behind them a little odd. Of course, as a native of Mumbai who’d been educated in the American South he knew something about how Westerners talk about religion, and he was good-natured enough to humor us and to try and answer our questions. But for him, where he lived, who he married, what he ate—all of this and more—were not separate from what he did several times a week at the mandir, nor from the way he understood himself as a Hindu (a designation which,  to prefigure the next part of this presentation, was invented by scholars in the nineteenth century).

But to make my point clear: Dharmesh didn’t think of himself as “religious.”

The Invention of Religion

In his book Genealogies of Religion Talal Asad makes subtle and skillful use of the work of French social theorist Michel Foucault in order to dislodge long-held assumptions regarding the autonomy and essence of the signifier “religion.” Asad is an anthropologist, and his use of Foucault is fitting since Foucault’s work (on human sexuality, the clinic, the prison, and madness) delves not into the essences of things—things as they are in themselves—but into the ways that our discourse (how we talk, write, and behave in social groups) produces the things we talk about, write about, and act on.[1]

Foucault in fact wrote very little about religion, since for him religion is but one of many sites at which humans create and ultimately contest knowledge, privilege, and power. A Foucauldian critique of religion recognizes that the attempt to hypostasize “religion” by thinking of it in isolation from social contexts, material conditions, and bodily practices—that is, positing religion as something outside of and prior to these things—is a futile task, a hopeless fiction.

Asad’s genealogy of religion begins with a critical examination of Clifford Geertz’s celebrated definition of religion as a cultural symbolic system. According to Geertz, a religion is a “system of symbols which act to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in [people].”[2] Religious symbols (objects, rituals, texts, etc.) function “by inducing in the worshiper a certain distinctive set of dispositions (tendencies, capacities, propensities, skills, habits, liabilities, proneness) which lend a chronic character to the flow of his [or her] activity and the quality of [the] experience.”[3] For Geertz, the anthropological study of religion is a two-stage operation. The first stage consists in analyzing the system of meanings encoded in the symbols that constitute a “religion proper.” The second stage is the attempt to relate this system to “social and psychological processes.”

Asad contends that this is a false and arbitrary division which allows Geertz to think it possible (and desirable) to propose essentialized, cross-cultural definitions of religion, symbol, belief, and so on. “Religion” in Geertz’s scheme—dependent as it is on his two-stage design—is strikingly independent of context. The material conditions in which religious symbols actually produce dispositions are not acknowledged or addressed; such conditions, in fact, are not recognized to be, as they surely are, constitutive, of these so-called dispositions.

Geertz’s preoccupation with symbol, along with his positioning of a symbolic system separate from practices, leads him to distinguish between “religious” and “secular” dispositions, and thus the essentializing of religion as a transhistorical, transcultural phenomenon is assumed to be inevitable. It also turns out that Geertz’s definition of religion is conspicuously Protestant: the emphasis on symbols, dispositions, moods, motivations, and so on implies the primacy of the unencumbered, believing individual.

Asad then works backward to explain how such an understanding of religion has found widespread acceptance. He notes that it was the fragmenting of the unity and authority of the Roman Catholic Church and the wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that contributed to the invention of religion as a universally available category of human experience.

The more recent work of William Cavanaugh has explained this history in terms of a three-fold process: interiorization, privatization, and relativization. In the first of these, early modern theologians developed the idea that “religion is an innate human impulse planted by God in the hearts of all without need of special revelation.”[4]  Breaking with earlier Christian tradition, religion was now separated from rites and bodily practices and identified “with an essence that stands behind the practices.”[5] This essence— the “real thing” that religion is—is worshiping God in one’s heart.

In the second of this three-fold process, religion was dislodged from the public sphere (it’s an interior impulse after all) and rendered an exclusively private concern. The saeculum was reimagined as a neutral space outside the influence of “religion” and a whole new conception of the social order was invented in which “God would rule hearts and minds, but not bodies—and certainly not visible political and economic processes.”[6]

And in the third, it became possible to speak of “religions” in the plural. Religion was now the genus, of which Christianity is one species, along with Buddhism, Judaism, Shinto, Islam, and so on. All revelation, then, was now seen as partial, and all species of Religion were understood, as John Hick put it, as one way up the mountain to “Ultimate Reality.”[7] All particular religions are now relativized. “Truth is one, but it has many names.”[8]

Dialogue and Doctrine

The widespread embrace of religion as an interior impulse, a private matter, and as relative to all other expressions of and commitments to “Truth” has engendered the practice of inter-religious dialogue as an exercise in surrendering the particulars (of doctrine, especially) for the sake of what can be broadly or generally affirmed across traditions. This desire for agreement usually has to do with how Christians and Jews, for instance, can define their doctrinal claims in ways that, first of all, will not offend each other and, secondly, will not contradict what reasonable people already believe about the world, nature, science, and history.

Along these lines, religious educator Gabriel Moran has argued that “the Christian or Jew who has been educated according to the criteria of modern historiography, critical inquiry, and methods of science cannot cavalierly announce that the modern world is simply wrong.”[9] Moran is concerned to ensure that Christianity and Judaism “make sense” to “contemporary people” (not least, one assumes, to Christians and Jews themselves). This will mean that thoughtful, ecumenically minded practitioners of these religions need to surrender some of their particular faith claims or redefine some of their cherished doctrines in order for genuine communication and mutual enhancement to take place.

But this is the heart of the problem.

It simply isn’t possible to think of the Christian narrative or the Jewish narrative as only one point of view, a “unique” perspective on a world that exists in a different, “modern” sort of way. As John Milbank has observed, “There is no independently available ‘real world’ against which we must test our Christian [or Jewish] convictions, because these convictions are the most final, and at the same time the most basic, seeing of what the world is.”[10]

To put it another way: Understandings of inter-religious dialogue like Moran’s seem to assume that there exists an open, neutral space where people can meet up when they’re not being religious. To think that revelation in Jewish or Christian communities can be emptied of content for the sake of something that all humans “experience” and to which they can all assent is to treat doctrine as if it could be grasped and evaluated independently of how it is actually embodied, interpreted, performed, born witness to, given life in Christian and Jewish communities.

In contrast to the modern approach to dialogue, which is rooted in the modern invention of religion, it is only by paying close attention to practices and to a community’s use of language—the way it worships, the kind of world it speaks and sings and prays into being—that understanding between normative traditions can take place at all.

Here, Wesleyan theology, which is rooted in long-standing traditions of Christian orthodoxy, can illuminate.  For example, the second of the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion states that “the Son, which is the Word of the Father, [is] begotten from everlasting of the Father, the very and eternal God, and [is] of one substance with the Father.” The Son, the article goes on to say, “took [human] nature in the womb of the blessed Virgin.”

This is the Church’s doctrine of the incarnation in all of its embarrassing particularity. And it is tempting for Christians, in conversations about Jesus with Jews or Muslims, say, to bypass this language and to propose instead the kind of benign humanism that sees in Jesus a “unique personhood” (Moran) that all people of goodwill can admire. But such a benign humanism is itself a doctrinal stance that does violence to—that violates—the embarrassing particularities of Judaism and Islam. Christians and Jews and Muslims will not “agree” on Jesus; but Christians can honor (1 Pet 2:17) the particular doctrinal commitments of Jews and Muslims by refusing to water down their own.

And honoring the doctrinal claims of other religious traditions must be more than merely tolerating them. Tolerance, of course, is a long-standing hallmark of inter-religious dialogue—the stated goal, often, of face to face encounters with persons of other traditions. But tolerance doesn’t advance genuine understanding, nor does it cost us anything.

The way of Jesus—“the Son, the Word of the Father”—is the way of love: risky, inconvenient, complicated, messy, difficult, demanding love. Loving my conversation partners—seeking their good, willing their happiness, bearing with them, desiring their companionship—this is the hazardous business of building relationships, of forging connections across doctrinal divides. Tolerance is all too happy to avoid this. Tolerance turns out to be a means for keeping us estranged from one another while we pride ourselves on our open-mindedness. More than a decade after 9/11 most of us are tolerant of Islam but we don’t really love Muslims. We don’t really know any Muslims to love. Tolerance has kept us at a safe and sterile distance.


And this leads me, finally, briefly, to one last observation about the nature of doctrine as lived discipleship. Dialogue between or among religious traditions is less about formalized conversations around a table (though these are not unimportant) and more about the slow, patient work of bearing witness and of witness being borne to us. Doctrine, in this sense, will be the Church’s teaching made plain in Christian living.  Like my Hindu friend, Dharmesh, doctrine and discipleship will be of a piece.


[1] Talal Asad, Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1993).

[2] Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973), 90.

[3] Geertz, 95.

[4] William T. Cavanaugh, “God is Not Religious” in God is Not . . . Religious, Nice, ‘One of Us,’ American, a Capitalist, D. Brent Laytham, ed. (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2004), 101.

[5] Cavanaugh, 101.

[6] Cavanaugh, 104.

[7] Cavanaugh, 110.

[8] Cavanaugh, 110.

[9] Gabriel Moran, Uniqueness: Problem or Paradox in Jewish and Christian Traditions (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1992), 42.

[10] John Milbank, The Word Made Strange: Theology, Language, Culture (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), 250 (emphasis in original).