December 1, 2004
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Marc Gopin

Adam B. Seligman, Modest Claims: Dialogues and Essays on Tolerance and Tradition   (University of Notre Dame Press: 2004) $40, 216pp.

FOR THE FOLLOWING two reasons, Modest Claims: Dialogues and Essays on Tolerance and Tradition is one of the most interesting books I have ever read. First, the book includes a cast of characters who have spent their lives pouring over the wisdom emerging out of the world’s religious traditions who studiously avoid, at least in this book, an obsession with footnotes and small matters that so plague the minds of many academics (of which I am one). Second, the group is both respectful of religion and also aware of its dangers. The writers and their approach to this topic allows a critical discussion, namely, the question of the coexistence — or lack thereof — of world religions in modern times, to move forward. The group meets not as national security experts or counterterrorism specialists, but rather as an organic constellation of individuals with a deep knowledge of the essential crux of interpretation and change in religious traditions. The group understands the fundamental problem of clashing worldviews that can, while overlapping, be in conflict on at least a number of fronts. They come to this task with a sober awareness of the post-Enlightenment era, its successes, and its deep flaws that have spawned so much extremism in the 20th century with no sign of abatement.

No one is better qualified to assemble such a group and lead a dialogue than Adam Seligman, a tough-minded, profound scholar based at Boston University who has written some of the best work on the problematic legacy of the Enlightenment and its impact on religion and culture. Seligman’s basic posture is that many of the axioms of Enlightenment-spawned society are untenable; they have generated a search for meaning that is leading toward major trouble for the future of human civilization unless we successfully address the boundaries of sameness and difference, as well as the requisite and indispensable notion of tolerance that will referee the profoundly different approaches to the search for meaning and value. At the same time, Seligman is a master at creating dialogue among visionary thinkers from a variety of cultures. Shlomo Fischer from Israel is a fresh voice of pioneering thinking and education for the future of Israeli culture, while Rusmir Mahmutcehajic is a gem arising from the astonishingly resilient culture of Sarejevo and Bosnia.

This discussion inspires hope, not because the view of religion is optimistic or utopian; it decidedly is not. Rather it is because such depth of thought, generosity of interest, and humility of engagement is an interesting paradigm for how the interfaith relationships can proceed at a much deeper level than have been attempted until now. From my experiences in this field, I can say confidently that two things plague the well-intentioned religious dialogues of the past: knee-jerk hostility by those who refuse to participate and knee-jerk niceness of those who do participate. In Modest Claims one finds neither. While the participants respect each other, they waste no time with platitudes. After 9/11, I do indeed celebrate the modest claims of pro-social inter-religious platitudes, just as Seligman celebrates tolerance. In other words, given the state of global relations, even interfaith dialogue that is superficial is better than no dialogue at all, or a monologue of hatred and violence. I will take crumbs in an age of hatred and mass murder. On the other hand, no one is foolish enough to believe that we can survive primal hatred married to space-age technology unless we develop a deeper understanding of what is wrong and develop models of what can be made right in interfaith relations. Modest Claims is an excellent place to dive in, and Seligman is his usual brilliant self.

Seligman is a vital asset, by the way, to the future of Jewish theology in a crowded world. We Jews have the brains to develop theology and halakha that will help us survive, thrive, and be moral leaders in the larger world. The question is whether we have the courage and the vision to rise above past sorrows. Part of that courage comes from meeting the “other” in a deeper way, in a way that is firmly post-Holocaust, in a world where everyone is now imperiled without a deeper engagement with strangers.

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Marc Gopin is James H. Laue Professor of Religion, Diplomacy, and Conflict Resolution, and Director of the Center on Religion, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University's Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution. He is also a Senior Researcher at the Fletcher School for Law and Diplomacy's Institute for Human Security. His most recent books are Healing the Heart of Conflict and Holy War, Holy Peace.

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