Published online by Cambridge University Press: 18 March 2013
After decades of optimism, interreligious dialogue is now confronted with a considerable amount of skepticism. In theology, this skepticism is primarily being fed by the cultural-linguistic theory of religion. This theory seems to be in keeping with what the Babel narrative has always said: people belonging to different “language” communities can do no more than babble at one another. The author asks, first of all, whether the story of Babel indeed affirms the cultural-linguistic argument for the end of interreligious dialogue. After showing that there are theological and exegetical reasons to doubt the classical interpretation of the Babel narrative, the author demonstrates how a renewed hermeneutic of this story actually challenges the cultural-linguistic discourse concerning the incommensurability of religions. Indeed, she argues, ultimately, the Babel story is not a narrative about the end of communication, but about its beginning.
1 Although Lindbeck's most important work, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age, appeared as long ago as 1984, the cultural-linguistic theory of religion developed therein has only really made its way into theological reflection on interreligious dialogue in more recent years. See Lindbeck, George A., The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1984).Google Scholar His cultural-linguistic religious theory laid the foundation for the particularist theology of religions. See, among others, Hintersteiner, Norbert, Traditionen Überschreiten: Angloamerkanische Beiträge zur interkulturelle Traditionshermeneutik (Vienna: WUV, 2001)Google Scholar; Knitter, Paul, Introducing Theologies of Religions (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2002), esp. 178–91)Google Scholar; Moyaert, Marianne, “Interreligious Dialogue and the Debate between Universalism and Particularism: Searching for a Way out of the Deadlock,” Studies in Interreligious Dialogue 15 (2005): 36–51.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
5 For the paradigmatic character of Babel, see Ebach, Jürgen, “Wir sind ein Volk. Die Erzählung vom Turmbau zu Babel: Eine biblische Geschichte in aktuellen Kontext,” in Weltdorf Babel: Globalisierung als theologische Herausforderung, ed. Collet, Gabriel (Münster: LIT, 2001), 21.Google Scholar
6 The present article makes no attempt at a historical-critical exegesis of the Babel narrative. Thus, I leave aside issues of source, form, and redaction criticism and consider the passage from the perspective of biblical theology. I consider the Bible as the first theological source of the attempt to reflect, in dialogue with experience, on the enigmas of human existence and the way in which human beings are called to relate to each other and to God. The Bible continues to give rise to thought even in today's complex context of diversity. What more aptillustration than the myth of Babel, which recounts the dispersion of peoples and the confusion of language and culture? In this I place myself alongside more philosophical and literary readers of the Bible like Burggraeve, Roger, “Biblical Thinking as the Wisdom of Love,” Anti-Judaism and the Fourth Gospel, ed. Bieringer, Reimund et al. , Jewish, and Series, Christian Heritage 1 (Assen: Van Gorcum, 2001) 229–38Google Scholar; Kass, Leon, The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis (New York: Free Press, 2003)Google Scholar; and Fishbane, Michael, Biblical Text and Texture: A Literary Reading of Selected Texts (Oxford: One World Publications, 1998).Google Scholar See also Alter, Robert, The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York: Basic Books, 1981).Google Scholar
7 See Hick, John and Knitter, Paul, eds. The Myth of Christian Uniqueness (London: SCM, 1987).Google Scholar
9 Moyaert, Marianne, “In Response to the Religious Other: Levinas, Interreligious Dialogue and the Otherness of the Other,” in The Awakening to the Other. A Provocative Dialogue with Emmanuel Levinas, ed. Burggraeve, Roger (Leuven: Peeters, 2008), 172.Google Scholar
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13 Lindbeck, George, “Relations interreligieuses et œcuménisme: Le chapître 3 de La nature des doctrines revisité,” in Postlibéralisme? La théologie de George Lindbeck et sa réception, ed. Boss, Marc et al. Lieux théologiques, vol. 37 (Genève: Labor et Fides, 2004): 183–203.Google Scholar
20 Slater, Peter, “Lindbeck, Hick and the Nature of Religious Truth,” Studies in Religion 24 (1995): 69.CrossRefGoogle Scholar For a similar critique see also Groh, Jeffrey, Christian Tradition Today: A Postliberal Vision of Church and Word (Leuven: Peeters, 2000), 257Google Scholar; Fredericks, James, “A Universal Religious Experience: Comparative Theology as an Alternative to a Theology of Religions,” Horizons 22 (1995) 81CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Stone, Jerome, “Philip Hefner and the Modernist and Postmodernist Divide,” Zygon 39 (2004): 767CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Cobb, John, “Incommensurability: Can Comparative Religious Ethics Help?,” Buddhist-Christian Studies 16 (1996): 45.Google Scholar
22 This widespread classical interpretation of the story of Babel in literature and art is demonstrated in Hiebert, Theodore, ed., Toppling the Tower: Essays on Babel and Diversity (Chicago: McCormick Theological Seminary, 2004).Google Scholar
23 There is an explicit connection made between Babel and to confuse (balal).
24 Steiner, George, After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation (London: Oxford University Press, 1976), 59.Google Scholar
27 This longing for a restoration of the original language of unity probably lies at the origin of various projects by theologians and philosophers to undo the curse of Babel. So, among others, there is the search for the Ursprache, the language that was spoken before the confusion of language and that would have been spoken in Paradise. This language not only put people in a position to understand one another and to immediately communicate with one another in a perfectly transparent way; the Ursprache was also in total accord with reality. See Eco, Umberto, The Search for the Perfect Language (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995).Google Scholar
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34 The reader will notice that the story of Babel is not about the plurality of religions but indeed about the multiplicity of languages and cultures. I answer this criticism with two points. (1) The criticism that the story of Babel is about languages and cultures and not about religions overlooks the historical fact that no specific term comparable to “religion” was available in the Hebrew of the biblical authors. Israel did not consider the covenant with God to be a religion, and likewise did not think about the surrounding peoples and cultures in these terms. (2) Among other things, the practice of inculturation teaches us that lan guage, religion, and culture are usually very closely associated with one another, so closely even that a negative/positive evaluation of the “culture” almost automatically leads to an equally positive/negative evaluation of the religion. See Wilfred, Felix, “Weltreligionen und christliche Inkulturation,” Zeitschrift für Missionswissenschaft und Religionswissenschaft 73 (1989): 205–20.Google Scholar It seems to me that in light of this it would also be correct to argue that the moment in which God scattered the people and confused the languages, and in so doing initiated the multiplicity of cultures, he at the same time gave the initial impetus to the plurality of religions. In light of this, I think that it is fitting to argue that God's attitude towards religions is analogous to his attitude towards cultures.
35 This approach is not concerned with discovering layers of redaction or original literary forms.
36 I will set aside the diachronic issue of authorship in this close reading. The approach developed here is synchronic, taking the texts as they now stand.
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39 Gen. 10:5, 20, 31.
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43 This is borne out by the fact that in verse 8, no mention is even made of the tower. It only says that the construction of the city was stopped. From this perspective, the classic focus on the tower, although it clearly speaks to the imagination, is not only mis placed but also lures us away from the actual story line that revolves around unity and dispersion. It would therefore be better not to call this story “the tower builders” or “the tower of Babel,” but rather the story of “the scattering of the peoples.” See Cassuto, Umberto, A Commentary on the Book of Genesis (Jerusalem: Magness Press, 1961), 226.Google Scholar
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46 André Neher (1914–88), Jewish scholar, philosopher and writer. Neher was professor of Hebrew and Hebrew literature at the University of Strasbourg. He authored various books on the Torah, the Talmud, the Midrash and the Prophets.
47 Neher, André, L'Exil de la parole: Du silence biblique au silence d'Auschwitz (Paris: Seuil, 1970).Google Scholar We follow the translation The Exile of the Word: From the Silence of the Bible to the Silence of Auschwitz, trans. Maisel, David (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1981).Google Scholar
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53 This gap is usually filled in with “let us go to the field.” This occurs in the Samaritan, Greek, Syriac, and Vulgate.
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