Wednesday, July 18, 2007

John Saliba: Interview on Dialogue with New Religions

John A. Saliba, S.J., has been professor of religious studies at the University of Detroit Mercy since 1987, having taught there since 1970. Born in Malta, he holds licentiates in philosophy and theology from Heythrop College (England), a diploma in (social) anthropology from Oxford University, and a Ph. D. in Religion and Religious Education (1971) from the Catholic University of America. In the early 1990's he took part in a three-year study of the new religious movements conducted for the Vatican by the International Federation of Catholic Universities. He has compiled two annotated bibliographies on the new religious movements: Psychiatry and the Cults (New York: Garland Publishing, 1987) and Social Science and the Cults (New York: Garland Publishing, 1990). His more recent publications include Christian Responses to the New Age Movement (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1998) Perspectives on New Religious Movements (Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press, 2nd ed., 2003), “Psychology and the New Religious Movements,” The Oxford Handbook of New Religious Movement, ed. by James R. Lewis (NY: Oxford University Press, 2004), “The Study of UFO Religions: A Review Essay,” Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions, vol. 10.2, November 2006, 103-23; and “Teaching New Religious Movements: Views from the Humanities and the Social Sciences,” in Teaching New Religious Movements, ed. David Go. Bromley (Oxford University Press, 2007).

Morehead's Musings: Dr. Saliba, thank you for your willingness to answer a few questions related to dialogue with new religious movements (NRMs). You wrote an article for the Journal of Ecumenical Studies in 1993 and at that time you wrote that the literature on new religions by Christians reflects "fear, suspicion, confrontation, antagonism, and belligerency." Do you think that these types of attitudes still tend to a general perspective in the attitudes and relationships between Christianity and the new religions?

John Saliba: I am not sure to what degree these attitudes prevail (since I wrote my essay). I think that there’s a little more tolerance (and maybe understanding) among people who have come into contact with new religions. This may be caused by several factors: the new religions are less visible than they used to be. Thus, you do not see, for example, members of the Hare Krishna Movement evangelizing their faith in the open as frequently as you used to. Also, members of the new religions seem to have adopted a less confrontational approach in their recruiting efforts. Again, many members of the new religions have “grown up,” both in age and in maturity. And further, several NRMs appear to have made some accommodation to Western culture.

What is interesting is that one finds less mention of “cults” in newspapers. Even at conferences of professional societies, there are fewer sessions on NRMs. [Exactly what this means is not yet clear].

MM: In your article you also mention that the debates within Christianity about the new religions tend to center around questions of orthodoxy, and that the "standard theological response to the new religions has been apologetic and dogmatic." How might the various branches of Christendom, particularly some expressions of Protestantism, need to move beyond this in order to develop a broader theology of religious pluralism and engagement of the religions, particularly the new religions?

John Saliba: First, for a good survey of the major theologies of religion, a survey which also evaluates these theologies, the best book I have come across is Paul K. Knitter’s book, Introducing Theologies of Religion (2002).

Christianity has been concerned with orthodoxy from apostolic times. Christian Churches have constantly passed judgment on one another with reference to “correct” beliefs. With this in mind, it is easy to see how defending one’s beliefs and attacking beliefs held to be wrong have been common. The first book which comes to mind is Irenaeus’s “Against the Heretics.”

MM: As a follow up to this, you also wrote that the anticult [or counter-cult] movement "is neither an appropriate Christian response nor a productive social and religious reaction to the rising pluralism of the late twentieth century." Now that we have moved into the twenty-first century, do you still feel this way, and how do you see dialogue with the new religions as a more promising facet of a different response?

John Saliba: It seems to me that Christian charity should play a decisive role in the way Christians should treat people of other faiths. This does not imply that Christians must agree with the belief systems and moral behavior of the NRMs. Many of the actions of the anticult movement have intensified both the social and religious conflicts between people of different faiths. Moreover, some of the reactions against the NRMs have not been a good advertisement of Christianity. While it is appropriate to make it clear how the NRMs differ from Christianity, this should be done with respect to the religious freedom which we all desire. Of course, not all NRMs are open to genuine dialogue, just as not all Christians are prepared to enter into dialogue with people of other faiths.

MM: Your article interacts with Leonard Swidler's "Dialogue Decalogue." You note that he wrote this for ecumenical dialogue, and with dialogue between Christianity and world religions, but that "Swidler did not seem to have the NRM's in mind." What types of problems have you noted in dialogue with NRMs that might necessitate a modification in Swidler's Decalogue as applied to this context?

John Saliba: Swidler’s article deals with dialogue between religions that has been taking place for a while. Dialogue between traditional religions and NRMs must take into account several new factors. Till recently at least, most members of NRMs have been converts to the new religions. Some many harbor some dissatisfaction with the religions of their upbringing.

Some modifications of the Swidler’s rules are necessary for dialogue with NRMs. Since some dialogue has in fact taken place, one can start by observation what went well and what didn’t in such interactions. But one must note that just as Christians have to be educated in the process of dialogue, so have members of NRMs.

MM: Are you aware of the various forms of evangelical-Mormon dialogue that are taking place, the controversy that surrounds them, and do you have any reflections on this?

John Saliba: Yes, I am aware of this dialogue, but I must admit that I haven’t followed it in detail. One of the problems in such dialogue is that there are different views as to where the Mormon Church fits into the religions of the world. Is it a branch of Christianity (mainly Protestantism), a syncretistic faith, or a new religion, sui generis? Some Christian groups list Mormonism with “destructive cults.” Also, Mormonism has a very aggressive evangelization program and, according to some scholars, is one, if not the most, fast-growing religion. Dialogue with Mormonism may have its unique difficulties. As a Christian I feel that I should make an attempt to start a dialogue. My attempt may be unsuccessful or I may run into serious problems which might necessitate the termination of the dialogue.

MM: One of the problems that seem to be involved in the evangelical-Mormon dialogue from both sides of the religious divide is a questioning of motives and honesty in the dialogue partners. How does this attitude conflict with the idea of Swidler's ideals for dialogue partners, and how might it represent a serious challenge to this expression of dialogue that calls into question whether evangelicalism is ready for such dialogue?

John Saliba: The questions regarding motives and honesty are serious ones. In general, one must assume good motives and honesty in others, unless there is clear evidence to the contrary. In all forms of dialogue, one can assume that both parties have some evangelical intentions. If nothing else, they are making sure that misunderstandings of their faiths are corrected. Blatant expressions of evangelicalism would include direct or indirect attempts to covert the other party, unwillingness to listen to others and to correct one views if this is needed, and efforts to monopolize the conversation. Needles to say, such expressions are not conducive to dialogue.

MM: You also state in your article that "[m]embers of both new and traditional religions who take a conservative dogmatic stance are not ready for interreligious dialogue." Can you describe what you mean by this?

John Saliba: By a conservative dogmatic stance I have in mind the following: an attitude which stresses dogma, that is, which beliefs are true and which are false. This is a judgmental attitude which leads to conflict. Dialogue is not a discussion forum. Those in dialogue are not called to evaluate the views of the other parties engaged in dialogue. While people in dialogue should not be afraid to bring out differences between different faiths, the stress should be to find points of contact and cooperation. Of course, this applies also to Christians.

MM: In your view, why is dialogue with the new religions necessary?

John Saliba: New religions are here to stay, though I personally doubt that anyone of the current new religions will ever become a major faith. They have many members and they have also created some problems (e.g., between parents and their adult children). These problems can be better solved of alleviated by dialogue, rather than by some form of conflict. Thus, for example, the conflict between parents and their children who have joined NRMs cannot be addressed, much less solved, by mutual antagonism etc.

MM: Your article concludes with a suggestion of various "steps toward dialogue." Can you summarize these for us?

John Saliba: I have not developed this section to any degree. In general, I would say that correct information about NRMs needs to be disseminated. People must be educated in the implications of religious freedom. And ways of coping with both the psychological and theological problems brought about by pluralism must be found. I have briefly dealt with these issues in my book Understanding New Religious Movements (Altamira Press 2003).

MM: Do you have any other thoughts that might reflect a development in your views on these issues since you wrote the article?

John Saliba: There are different kinds of dialogue. Thus, for instance, dialogue between the Christians Churches is not the same as dialogue between Christianity and Hinduism. There is also dialogue between scholars and dialogue between what one could call the average believers who are not theologically trained. I think more work needs to be done regarding dialogue between average believers.

MM: Dr. Saliba, thank you again for answering these questions and for your contribution to dialogue with the new religions.



I liked this dialogue and your blog. I assume NRMs refers to the New Religious Movements. All in all, a very thoughtful and intelligent site.


John W. Morehead said...

Yes, Timothy, NRMs refers to new religious movements. My apologies for the previous lack of clarification.

I'm glad you enjoyed the post and the site.