THE DIALOGUE HAS BARELY BEGUN
by Joseph Cunneen

A look backward is also a look ahead.

JOSEPH CUNNEEN, with his wife Sally, began publishing Cross Currents in December 1950.

People have been kind enough to say that keeping Cross Currents alive all those years since 1950 was an achievement, but looking back at its beginnings offers as many reasons for embarrassment as for satisfaction. Although my colleagues and I were united in wishing to emerge from the Roman Catholic cultural ghetto of our childhood, we hardly realized how narrow our world still remained. If, almost by instinct, the journal was ecumenical from the beginning, what was perceived as healthy openness was often the result of fortuitous discoveries and the immediate lessons of World War II.

As a GI student in Paris after that war, I remember encountering Dieu Vivant, a review founded by Père (later Cardinal) Jean Daniélou, and struggling through an issue with articles by Karl Barth, Martin Buber, and Nicolas Berdyaev, as well as Daniélou himself. It did not take me long to understand that these eminent thinkers, although inhabiting different religious worlds, were most often raising parallel questions; I had to familiarize myself with new vocabularies, but it was clear they all had something to say to me.

Interreligious collaboration had a poignantly dramatic meaning to me as a member of Patton's 3rd Army, stumbling across a Nazi concentration camp in the Spring of 1945 where an emaciated survivor greeted me with the cry "Shalom." In view of the large-scale failure of organized Christendom in the face of Hitler's murderous fury against the Jews, it was hardly accidental that the most credible voices for a quarterly that hoped "to explore the implications of Christianity for our times" were representatives of the intellectual/spiritual resistance against Nazism. I would not have been able to explain the theological meaning of religious pluralism, but could easily understand why members of the French resistance did not submit comrades to denominational tests before setting out to destroy a railroad bridge over which the Germans were bringing supplies.

Although my colleagues and I felt an instinctive support for the desire of former colonies to throw off their chains, the journal we produced still reflected a European-centered world. I can remember meeting Vietnamese students in a Parisian café during the summer of 1945, young Marxists who knew Jefferson and the U.S. constitution better than I did and hoped to return to Indo-China to help create an independent nation. I did not believe that France would employ military force to retain control over their colony, and was supremely confident in assuring these students that the U.S. would support their cause because of our dedication to the principle of self-determination.

Such memories make it clear that for me -- and also, I believe, for my fellow-editors -- sustaining Cross Currents over the years was a way of continuing our education in public. Although we were fortunate that there were well-educated and independent women involved in planning the journal and serving on the editorial board, none of us could yet foresee the immense and ongoing importance of the women's movement. Of course, the still-limited possibilities for women's higher education meant that the production of women scholars had not yet reached a critical mass, but it is humbling to recognize that there were only three women writers published in the first decade of Cross Currents -- Simone Weil, the German biographer Ida Frederike Goerres, and the Polish philosopher Anna Morawska. (To his credit, the late Erwin Geissman, an active editor from the start, translated the preface of Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex prior to its U.S. publication. Unfortunately, the U.S. publisher refused permission for us to use it as a separate essay and alert our audience to what was coming.)

It should be emphasized that none of the original editors of Cross Currents was a theologian or cleric; we had no intention of creating a journal for specialists in religion. At the same time, we believed that aspiring Christian intellectuals in any field should be theologically informed. This meant that a given issue might contain both Yves Congar on true and false reform in the church and a sociologist's analysis of racism; André Néher on the messiah of Israel and recommendations for moving "from the economics of avarice to an economy for mankind"; Simone Weil's "Beyond Personalism" and a study of African colonialism; Martin Buber on the education of character and Romano Guardini on Dostoevski's Grand Inquisitor; Karl Barth's insistence (at the height of the McCarthy period) that the church should be identified with neither the West nor the East, along with an essay on Christian conscience in the face of war. Fortunately, we were correct in assuming that the concerns of our readers were as wide as those of my co-editors.

There were a growing number of U.S. contributors during the 1960s, and increased interest in Latin America and liberation theology in the 70s, but despite important articles from a range of Jewish scholars, prior to 1990 when it became "the Journal of the Association for Religion and Intellectual Life," Cross Currents reflected a basically Christian ecumenism. After that point there was not only a significant Jewish presence, but the board supported the editors' increased efforts to include Islamic, Hindu, and Buddhist writers. But there are no grounds for complacency -- the dialogue to which the journal is dedicated has barely begun.

One problem is that the limited financial resources of Cross Currents allow little possibility for sustained contact with possible dialogue-partners on other continents, particularly Asia and Africa. There are also inevitable difficulties in translating the thought-categories of non-Western traditions into a language that would be fully understandable in today's North American intellectual world.

Although there have been important in-depth exchanges -- especially the extended visits of Buddhist monks to live and pray at U.S. monasteries and convents -- too much of the academic study of Eastern religion has been unintentionally condescending. There are an increasing number of universities that offer scholarly study of Eastern scriptures, but all too often these religions are treated as museum-pieces, as if millions of devotees are not practicing them as strenuously -- and (inevitably) as imperfectly -- as others practice Christianity and Judaism in the West. Even when there is an awareness of their continuing vitality, too many teachers, whether believers or not, tend to teach Eastern religions in terms of strained comparisons with Christianity. As Raimon Panikkar writes in The Intrareligious Dialogue, "Western culture constructs a philosophy or religion and considers it universal" (p. 43). In his forthcoming Gifford lectures, he even relates this intellectual narrowness with the either/or approach to issues fostered by superficially understood theistic assumptions that are unconsciously shared by atheists.

The problem is not bigotry but the premature assumption that we understand others before we have genuinely listened to them. Few of us are sufficiently grounded in our own convictions to meet the demands of Panikkar's inter-religious dialogue, in which we recognize that we will never understand the position of the other "unless I believe it to be somewhat true," as Americans we need to reflect on the virtual absence of significant international dialogue at a time when U.S. power goes virtually unchallenged. If few mourn the passing of the Soviet Union as a rival superpower, even fewer seem ready to point out that even as the U.S. insists on exporting its brand of democracy to other cultures, it makes virtually no effort to understand them. At major economic conferences that crucially affect the lives of millions of women, peasants, and unorganized workers, the "Big 7" make decisions without hearing from representatives of the world's majority. In the name of "the new world order" and "free trade," there is virtually no dialogue with those who will suffer most by putting such slogans into practice, and little disposition to recognize that the disparity between rich and poor is rising -- in our own country as well as the world as a whole.

Why cannot those who would rightly decry the imposition of religious standards on passing congressional legislation recognize that there now exists a virtually unchallenged orthodoxy in the way major international economic policies are reached? Who listens to the angry voices of those at the bottom of the economic ladder? Poor countries apparently have no right to complain about the prices at which they are forced to sell their raw materials or to show that the forced opening of markets can prevent the indigenous growth of their own economic potential.

The failure of the Republican-controlled Senate to ratify the test-ban treaty with Russia shocked many, but it is no more arrogantly nationalistic than our long-standing exploitation of the UN, using strong-arm methods to force through desired declarations, while simply ignoring it when we cannot get our own way. (See Ernest Childers' article, "Empowering the People in their United Nations," in Cross Currents, Winter 1994-95.) The unwillingness to carry out a serious plan of disarmament, beginning with the elimination of nuclear arms, and the rise in our military budget, renders suspect even a humanitarian employment of U.S. military power. Meanwhile, the instinctive generosity of ordinary Americans is stifled by a media fixation on scandal and frivolity: we know a great deal more about O. J. Simpson and Monica Lewinsky than we do about international responsibility for the horrors in Rwanda or the rigid terms offered at Rambouillet that made violence and counterviolence in Kosovo inevitable. How many serious documentaries have there been on the murderous effects of our sanctions in Iraq or the squalid conditions of maquiladores just south of the Rio Grande?

It is not hard to understand the limits on real political dialogue when the media are increasingly controlled by a handful of powerful men and our political parties compete primarily for more and more money to wage campaigns without substance. There is much handshaking and exploitation of patriotic and religious symbols, but little chance to hear from ordinary working people, from parents who see the ineffectiveness of our schools, or from former welfare recipients who have received little training to help them effectively enter the work force but still have young children to care for.

The irony is that those who would protest most eloquently against possible encroachments on the separation of church and state fail to challenge the de facto establishment of a nationalistic, quasi-democratic capitalism. It is this unofficial religion that has justified aggression against any nation that challenges our hegemony, and using our frightening military power in a way that teaches those we designate as outlaw nations that might makes right. Is it surprising, when serious dialogue has been ruled out from the start, that others pursue dangerous policies with indifference to international law, hoping to enforce respect by building up whatever arms they can procure?

I have touched too fleetingly on many complex issues and am all too aware that much criticism of the U.S. is based on simple jealousy. But precisely because of the unparalleled political and cultural dominance exercised by our country, we Americans bear an extra measure of responsibility in insuring that there is real dialogue, that those with little or no power receive a real hearing. Even with the best intentions, there is a kind of imperialism in assuming that we know what economic/cultural/political policies should be followed by countries we patronizingly refer to as "underdeveloped." Despite all the rhetoric regarding multiculturalism, such usage smells of a century-old colonialism: must other countries ape America in order to be considered "developed"?

Over the past fifty years I have had my narrow assumptions regularly challenged in Cross Currents. But today when academia, the media, and most religious groups are officially more tolerant and multicultural, the danger is that our ability to hear others may be dulled by our own sense of righteousness. Real dialogue seems harder than ever just when it is absolutely necessary for any progress toward peace and justice. Such dialogue is as essential now as it was fifty years ago, and Cross Currents is still a unique forum for carrying it on.

Copyright of Cross Currents is the property of Association for Religion & Intellectual Life and its content may not be copied without the copyright holder's express written permission except for the print or download capabilities of the retrieval software used for access. This content is intended solely for the use of the individual user.  Source: Cross Currents, Spring/Summer 2000, Vol. 50  Issue 1-2