Kwok Pui-lan, Globalization, Gender, and Peacebuilding: The Future of Interfaith Dialogue, Paulist Press, 2012. 102 pp. $9.95. ISBN: 9780809147724.
In this compact study, Kwok Pui-lan, William F. Cole Professor of Christian Theology and Spirituality at the Episcopal Divinity School, offers an outline for a proposal for how to think about and practice interfaith dialogue in a globalized world in which violent conflicts are often constructed in religious terms. Originally presented as lectures at the University of Notre Dame, the chapters have a conversational quality, and footnotes are kept to a minimum. Some readers might be frustrated that Kwok gestures at some complicated matters (such as the implications of current debates within the religious studies field about how the modern category of religion has its roots within liberal Christian theology) while leaving them underdeveloped. However, Kwok’s presentation has the salutary effect of being accessible to the non-specialist reader.
Kwok’s direct, uncomplicated style arguably connects with one of her key claims, namely, that “interfaith dialogue must not be confined to narrow academic circles and among the elites if it is going to have a wider impact on faith communities and society” (3). Kwok in particular underscores a point made by Ursula King that “feminism is a missing dimension of interfaith dialogue” (31), noting how many academic and official, institutional forms of interfaith dialogue have excluded women’s voices. Kwok correctly notes the dangers of some Western feminist approaches contributing to Islamophobia by portraying Islam in essentialist terms as anti-feminist, and cites Harvard scholar Leila Ahmed’s work on women and Islam as a resource for countering such simplistic appraisals. Kwok’s argument could have been extended and deepened by considering what implications the work of a scholar like Saba Mahmood (in The Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject) has for thinking about the implications of feminism for interfaith dialogue, specifically, the implications of Mahmood’s argument that the women’s mosque movement in Egypt embodies a form of agency focused on the cultivation of piety rather than on a secular-liberal form of feminist agency defined by the polarity of resistance and freedom. A theological engagement with Mahmood’s work might have led Kwok to acknowledge more radical interfaith difference than her proposal sometimes seems to allow.
Kwok positions her argument against what has become a standard typology of theological approaches to religious diversity: that of exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism. Within this typology, Kwok’s sympathies lie clearly with the pluralist camp. She favorably discusses the work of Diana Eck of Harvard’s Pluralism Project and concurs with Eck’s definition of pluralism as more than diversity and tolerance, but rather as “the energetic engagement with diversity,” “the active seeking of understanding across lines of difference,” and “the encounter of commitments” (14–15). Adding to pluralist discourse, Kwok builds on recent arguments for polydoxy, which Kwok describes as going “beyond the liberal claims that all religions are equally valid, for its asserts that we cannot know our own tradition without seeing it in relation to and through the lens offered by other religious and spiritual traditions” (77). Kwok also cites Colleen Hartung’s definition of polydoxy as “a place of many faiths within a circle of faith” that “implies an openness to diversity, difference, challenge, and multiplicity” (69).
Kwok deploys postcolonial definitions of hybridity in her argument against exclusivism and inclusivism, both of which she views as trying to defend essentialist understandings of religion. Taking hybridity seriously, for Kwok, means taking seriously the internal diversity of supposedly closed totalities and means abandoning a search for a common core supposedly shared by all religions.
However, despite her best intentions, Kwok’s account of polydoxy appears to succumb to the neo-colonial logic of inclusivism that she wishes to avoid. Her affirmation of Hartung’s polydoxy as a “place of many faiths within a circle of faith” continues the inclusivist move of presenting religious diversity as either located within a common field or expressing a common core. In her argument against exclusivist preoccupations with boundary maintenance and defense, and with her essentialist accounts of religious difference, Kwok arguably errs in the other direction: that is, she does not take religious difference seriously enough.
Alain Epp Weaver works for Mennonite Central Committee in Akron, PA, and is part of East Chestnut Street Mennonite Church in Lancaster, PA.