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Reviewed by:
  • The Im-Possibility of Interreligious Dialogue
  • Jeannine Hill Fletcher
The Im-Possibility of Interreligious Dialogue. By Catherine Cornille. New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 2008. xii + 265 pp.

In this very readable volume, Catherine Cornille lays out the essential principles that she characterizes as requisite conditions for interreligious dialogue. With a short introduction and conclusion, the substance of the book is presented in five chapters, each unpacking one of these virtues: humility, commitment, interconnection, empathy, and hospitality. While at first glance these may seem commonsense for any conversation, the strength of this volume is the way in which Cornille problematizes any easy adoption of these, recognizing the limits we run up against in interreligious exchange. She goes further, then, in both complicating an easy read of the principles and pursuing their possibility with the help of a wide range of religious thinkers and theorists. By helping readers identify these principles within the Christian tradition, she invites individuals to transform their traditions toward more positive postures in dialogue.

Two of the most persuasive chapters—on humility and empathy—investigate these themes with a rigorous scholarly excavation of resources, seeing them present in religious traditions and practices of encounter. While the reader may intuit "humility" as an important intellectual posture, Cornille demonstrates it also as a theological [End Page 238] virtue. From Christian theological traditions, humility in dialogue is grounded in an affirmation of the eschatological nature of our striving toward truth. This is complemented by the long-standing practice of apophatic theology in recognition of the ineffability of ultimate reality. Similar themes are identified in the other major religious traditions of the world.

In the chapter that treats empathy the reader moves from out of an understanding of empathy as a primarily emotive category and pursues with Cornille's careful scholarship the hermeneutical, phenomenological, and theoretical traditions that might be brought to bear. With the help of Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911), Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), Edith Stein (1891-1942), and Gerardus van der Leeuw (1890-1950) (among others), empathy is rendered as a fundamental interpretive orientation necessary for the real possibility of learning across difference. Recognizing that "there are inevitable limits for the empathic understanding to be gained" in interfaith learning, nevertheless, Cornille successfully employs both theory and practice as invitation toward its possibility.

While going in depth with each of the themes develops theological nuance and theoretical sophistication, the orientation is at times sustained by a very particular understanding of religions as authoritative sources of truth to which individuals give their consent. In the chapter on commitment, for example, Cornille insists on identifying those involved in the dialogue as fully committed members of particular faith traditions, embracing authoritatively constructed understandings of its truths. "Religious commitment," Cornille writes, "is generally understood as a deliberate identification with the teachings and practices of a particular tradition. It thus entails assent to the truth-claims of a particular tradition and recognition of the authority of the tradition in matters of doctrine and discipline" (p. 66). This suggests, at times, a fairly rigid notion of religious participation and tends toward homogenized religious bodies with clear authoritative structures. Further, this construction of 'religion' renders the relation among them fundamentally conflictual, as when Cornille argues that "most religious traditions regard themselves as the ultimate if not the sole repository of truth, as the highest path to salvation or the most efficacious means to liberation" (p. 10). Although admitting exceptions to this general rule, "religions" are regularly reduced to their competing truth claims, and interreligious dialogue is envisioned concretely as "a two-way process in which each partner is engaged in a process not only of informing but also convincing the other of the truth of his or her own beliefs and practices" (p. 71, emphasis added).

Cornille is describing a rather elite project of dialogue where "representatives of traditions" engage in argumentative practice (albeit one conditioned by humility, interconnection, empathy, and hospitality). Dialogue is not the "hodge-podge" and "mish-mash" of New Age syncretism (p. 64), where individuals speak from out of their own experiences. Rejecting any such non-normative stance of allegiance to a particular authoritative tradition, Cornille writes (disapprovingly), "If no particular religion...


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