Knowing the Religious Other

I am giving a talk this weekend (here) on employing sacramental mediation as a model for interfaith reconciliation, encounter, and learning. Interfaith encounter involves knowing the religious other. Drawing on Kierkegaard’s Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Fragments, penned under the pseudonym Johannes Climacus, I make the attempt to apply his well-known epistemological distinction between objective and subjective knowledge to interreligious learning and interfaith encounter.

We can know other religions both objectively and subjectively. Knowing a religion objectively might entail academic study, and the acquisition of objective knowledge, about the religion. For instance, I can learn and know and understand the five pillars of Islam. In this way, I know Islam objectively. However, when we know, and engage, a religion subjectively, we know that religion in the highest, most authentic, and genuine regard. It perhaps comes through spiritual experience. It may involve practicing the practices of the religious other with them, or entering into authentic relationships with them. For instance, knowing Islam subjectively is to encounter Muslims and develop genuine relationships with them. It might entail practicing the five pillars if possible (and not offensive to Muslims nor scandalous to your own tradition). Although we can objectively know Islam, we can only subjectively know Muslims. This is why it is often repeated that interfaith learning and dialogue does not take place between religions, but between religious people; that is, it is not between Judaism and Christianity, but rather it is between Jews and Christians.

Climacus offers two modes of knowing and then applies them to approaching God and knowing God. The two are objective knowledge (what he calls “the what” as in “what is something”), and subjective knowledge (what he calls “the how” as in “how do we know it”). He writes, “The way of objective reflection … leads to abstract thinking, to mathematics, to historical knowledge of various kinds, and always leads away from the subjective individual.”[1]

For instance, we know the following propositions objectively: two and two are four, the earth is spherical, and the content of the four noble truths and eight-fold path of Buddhism. We can know these in an indifferent, detached, and objective manner.  To know what love is, on the other hand, one must approach it in an attached, devoted, and committed fashion. To truly know a Muslim, a Jew, a Christian, and so on, you must be attached, devoted, and committed. You must be “all in” without condition. This is the path of subjective knowledge.

Recall the distinction between knowing Islam (objectively) and knowing a Muslim (subjectively). When we know God objectively (“the what” as in what is God?), we know God as object. It is knowing about God, but not necessarily relating to God.  Contrast this with knowing God subjectively (“the how” as in how do we seek God?). Approaching and knowing God subjectively is higher here since it allows the subject to relate to God as a subject. It yields the subjective path to truth, hence the well-known Kierkegaardian epistemological claim that “subjectivity is truth.”[2] Knowing God subjectively is a certain kind of relationship to truth. It is a relation that involves passionate commitment, risk, and trust.

For Climacus, subjective truth is “an objective uncertainty, held fast through the appropriation with the most passionate inwardness, [this] is the truth, the highest truth there is for an existing person.”[3] Note the distinction between the two modes. One’s relationship to objective truth is secure, indifferent, uncommitted, and dispassionate. There is no risk involved with objectively grasping the five pillars of Islam or the Lakota spiritual worldview.  However, a person’s relationship to subjective truth is risky, interested, committed, and passionate. You must engage it, and offer yourself to it, and risk that in the process you might be (mostly likely will be) changed, and probably changed for the better, especially if you understand your encounter with, and relationship to, the religious other as an authentic encounter of God.


     [1] Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Fragments, trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, vol. 1 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992), 193.

     [2] ibid, 203.

     [3] ibid., italics his.

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5 thoughts on “Knowing the Religious Other

  1. I enjoyed this very much and appreciate you bringing Kierkegaard into the public discourse of religion. I hope you will offer more posts along this line in the future.

  2. As someone who thinks Kierkegaard is usually left out in the cold, I like this very much.

  3. I appreciate this post and agree with the overall point that objective and subjective knowing are not the same, and that one allows for an interested passionate knowing that the other may not. However I wonder if a binary is being created too distinctly – too straight a line separating the two ways of knowing? Can I subjectively know without engaging the objective aspects too ? Perhaps looking at what happens in the borderlands of the two ways offers a more wholistic approach to knowing “the other” ?
    I also wonder if motivation needs to be addressed in this mix somehow? For example, It seems to me that I can seek either objective or subjective knowing for a utilitarian purpose/motivation – that is, I can want to know both the person and their religion solely for my own gain – to better my own religious practice or knowing, without any care for them or their religion as “other” and valuable in its/their own right apart from my own “use” of them ?

  4. I would like to join Susan in responding to this post: great delineation and distinction between objective/subjective knowing. Having read Kierkegaarde and subsequent existential philosophers, I would call attention to the concept of ‘intersubjectivity’ – as proposed years back by Dr. Michael Jackson (Harvard Div.).

    When two subjectivities interact (eg: two religious events/persons), a third subjectivity is created. The me and the other create a me/other. To me, this seems to accurately represent interfaith. You are absolutely right in noting that you will most likely be changed.

    Great post – thank you for re-bringing Kierkegaarde to the 21st century!

  5. Thank you all for your great comments, especially Susan and Joseph who point out the importance of not making too sharp of a distinction here as Climacus proposes. Perhaps it is indeed oversimplified, like many sharp dichotomies. I particularly like Dr. Jackson’s call to “intersubjectivity.” I need to look into that. It’s almost akin to a moment of Hegelian aufhaben, in which two bifurcations spawn a third one which somehow negates the other two, yet simultaneously transcending them while preserving something important from each.

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