The year 2018 marks two milestone anniversaries: the twenty-fifth anniversary of the publication of Samuel Huntington’s original “Clash of Civilizations” essay in Foreign Affairs and the seventeenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. After those attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, Huntington’s predictions of Muslim-Western clashes appeared vindicated. But his relevance transcends current events.
Now that the fires of Afghanistan, Iraq, and the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) have cooled, it is clearer that Huntington’s efforts were more ambitious than predicting a clash between the West and Islam. 1 He was more than a prophet of doom. He sought to be another Braudel, Toynbee, or Spengler, writing a sweeping account of world civilizations akin to theirs. He aspired, in his words, to “present a framework, a paradigm for viewing global politics that will be meaningful to scholars and useful to policymakers,” the test of which would be “whether it provides a more meaningful and useful lens … than any alternative paradigm.” 2 His was certainly a bold vision of our globalizing world—and a pessimistic vision of a world of intensifying conflicts between diverse identity groups across the globe. Challenging post-Cold War optimism and multiculturalism, Huntington argued that the more people of different civilizations were in contact, the more they would clash.
However, this paradigm was also (in Miroslav Volf’s words) “good for fighting, but not for living together in peace.” 3 Peace was beyond Huntington’s concern. After devoting an entire 300-page book to clashes between civilizations, he devoted a few vague sentences to how civilizations could possibly reduce conflict. 4 Even if we grant that Huntington correctly drew our attention to civilizational identity conflicts, as I will do here, we need to imagine more fully how such clashes could be ameliorated. Unless we agree with Nietzsche that one should “profoundly” grasp “the value of having enemies”—unless we believe that cursed are the peacemakers—then sane humans will need to transcend Huntington. 5 While his focus on identity remains relevant today, his model imposes a problematic paradigm without offering constructive remedies.
Therefore, the concluding burden of this essay will be to sketch a theoretical model that envisions concrete civilizational dialogues. To use Huntington’s own standard for paradigms, a “more meaningful and useful lens” in our conflicted age would be for civilizational actors to start from postures of what Miroslav Volf calls “hermeneutical hospitality,” instead of arguing that they should seek reconciliation, as Volf did in a later book. 6 To argue that civilizations must reconcile goes too far too fast. This is no solution—at least not yet.
But the solution is also not to argue for the existence of one universal worldwide civilization. Nor is it to retreat into a paradigm of relativism in which all civilizations have their own truths. Neither absolute difference of identities nor absolute assimilation under one principle will do.
Instead, taking a middle path of curiosity and rooted hospitality will be more constructive in a world of rival religions, cultures, and civilizations. It will balance diversity and unity while offering practical and concrete guidance for civilizations. The ancient practice of hospitality, when combined with an emphasis on understanding and interpretation (or hermeneutics), offers hope even if the world descends into the chaos of civilizational identity clashes. To imagine a genuine dialogue of civilizations, one need only imagine sharing meals with foreign guests at home. But first we must appreciate why Huntington’s work remains relevant.
Huntington Links Globalization to Identity Clashes
Written in the early Clinton presidency, Huntington’s description of “Muslim bellicosity and violence” certainly sounded prescient by the George W. Bush presidency. 7 As Huntington bluntly put it, “Islam’s borders are bloody, and so are its innards.” 8 An “intercivilizational quasi war … fought with terrorism” on the Islamic side against the West was underway, according to Huntington, already in 1996. 9 These claims sounded prophetic after September 11, 2001. They continued to echo in recent years, with the spectacular rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria and the spate of terror attacks committed in the name of ISIS in Europe and North America. The New York Times even claimed that Huntington’s theory had influenced the Trump Administration’s foreign policy plans. 10
But Huntington’s enduring relevance goes beyond Islamic-Western relations or contemporary politics. His most important insight was to link globalization to identity politics. 11 He argued that increasing interactions between peoples—globalization—would trigger civilizational identities. And, in the age of populism and anti-globalism, this alternative reading of globalization now looks prescient. In the early 1990s, several commentators predicted that globalization would lead to the peaceful triumph of global capitalism, democracy, and peace. 12 Francis Fukuyama predicted that we might see “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” 13 Later, Fukuyama said of history that we would look back and “be forced to agree that there had only been one journey and one destination;” all roads of history led to democratic capitalism. 14 We could therefore expect the former Soviet Union and China to join the global market economy and become democracies. Thomas Friedman of the New York Times predicted that integration into the global market system—symbolized by the presence of a McDonald’s franchise in a country—would lead to peace between countries in the system. 15 Only tribalistic areas outside the liberal order—only those without McDonalds— would see war. The spread of global capitalism after the Cold War would mean the spread of peace as economies were knitted together in ever more intricate webs. Unlike Fukuyama’s End of History model, however, Huntington claimed that his paradigm better fit the post-Cold War era, where “people and nations” were asking “the most basic question humans can face: Who are we?”—and were answering “in terms of ancestry, religion, language, language, history, values, customs, and institutions.” 16 Quite rightly, Huntington asserted that “people use politics not just to advance their interests but also to define their identity.” 17 According to Huntington, “values, culture, and institutions pervasively influence how states define their interests.” 18 Politics was all about identity.
And these questions of identity, according to Huntington, stemmed in part from “increasing interactions [between different civilizations that] intensify civilization consciousness and awareness of differences between civilizations and commonalities within civilizations.” 19 Such increasing interactions—the process of globalization, in other words—would on his view lead both to macro-level rallying of “kin countries” within civilizations and to micro-level conflicts along the fault-lines between different civilizations. 20 As the West sought to “promote its values of democracy and liberalism as universal values,” it would deal with “countering responses from other civilizations,” 21 and the “West versus the Rest” would likely be “the central axis of world politics in the future.” 22 What defined this axis was a clash of identity: a secular West against a religious Rest.
As a result, religion was going to be central to politics, at least according to Huntington. He predicted a revival of religion’s political and social relevance worldwide, which he interpreted as a “reaction against secularism, moral relativism, and self-indulgence, and a reaffirmation of the values of order, discipline, work, mutual help, and human solidarity.” 23 According to Huntington, many non-Western societies rejected the West’s secular path. “In Muslim eyes,” he wrote, “Western secularism, irreligiosity, and hence immorality are worse evils than the Western Christianity that produced them.” 24
Thus, Huntington argued that “Western belief in the universality of Western culture … is false; it is immoral; and it is dangerous.” 25 Its falsity was, he claimed, was “the central thesis” of his book. 26 Other cultures were reacting against the secular West, because of its secularism. The claim’s immorality was that Western imperialism would be required to impose Western culture worldwide. And its dangerousness was in leading Western leaders toward arrogant overreaching at a time when it was necessary “to preserve [the unique] Western civilization in the face of declining Western power.” 27 At a time when the Western secular order was under threat, defending it was necessary. Exporting it worldwide was the last thing the United States should try to do. That would only trigger backlashes.
Religion’s place in Huntington’s theory of identity politics thus “managed to both overstate and understate the relevance of religion.” 28 He overstated religion’s role in causing conflicts along civilizational fault-lines while, more importantly, understating its role in building peace.
Perhaps under pressure from an editor, Huntington expressed a vague and qualified prescription on the last two pages of his book that civilizations should seek to find their commonalities in an effort to strengthen a “singular Civilization [that] presumably refers to a complex mix of higher levels of morality, religion, learning, art, philosophy, technology, material well-being, and probably other things.” 29 But he had little to say about how this strengthening process could occur, apart from the pursuit of “understanding and cooperation among the political, spiritual, and intellectual leaders of the world’s major civilizations.” 30 What would such a pursuit look like? How could religion contribute to peacebuilding? Those questions were left to others. The problem, in part, was that Huntington lacked coherent models to explore them—models that could navigate a course between universalism and relativism while respecting the diversity of cultures and models that envisioned concrete practices of dialogue—all while taking religion seriously as a force for building peace.
Alternative Models for Civilizations: Universalism or Relativism
What if Huntington was wrong about the possibility of a singular worldwide Civilization? What if there was a universal civilization after all? We could conjure up a “global imaginary,” a “growing consciousness of belonging to a global community.” 31 We could appeal to a global humanitarian ideal. We could imagine the possibility of a universal civilization rooted in secular reason—a global federation of republics embodying a cosmopolitan, Enlightenment, Kantian dream of a “cosmopolitan constitution” for all of humanity. 32 If all the relevant international leaders could be gathered in one room where they could communicate within strictly rational ground rules, they might be able to construct an international order rooted in an “overlapping consensus” about rules of global morality that all rational people would embrace. 33 This process might reduce clashes between civilizations. The United Nations and international human rights law would be ways to institutionalize such neutral, “universal,” and secular ideals that all rational peoples would presumably embrace.
But these rational appeals assume that all participants can extricate themselves from their particular identities and exercise a benevolent, universal rationality. Such appeals also assume away the very problem of clashing identities by asserting the terms of commonality at the beginning—terms such as universal rationality or belief in God.
An example of such a proposal comes in the work of Christian ethicist William Schweiker, who argues for an explicitly global ethic to avoid the clash of civilizations. Schweiker attempts to root his ethic in the universality of globality, the sharing of the planet. 34 He goes on to stipulate an imperative, not unlike Kant, that humans should “in all actions and relations respect and enhance the integrity of life before God.” 35 Later, he engages in a comparison of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in order to “isolate a shared moral framework.” 36
But Schweiker’s approach puts a Christian interpreter in a superior position of isolating or extracting lessons embedded in the texts of other traditions, defining the universal value which all peoples must respect (globality, our common global home), and asserting the existence of a divine being. A humbler approach would be to allow religious and even atheistic interpreters to present their own scriptures, traditions, and practices in dialogue with other faith traditions, without asserting any grounds for commonality.
Attempts to extract a universal moral framework from multiple traditions also risk losing the particularity of each tradition’s narratives and teachings. Each tradition has embodied practices that cannot be reduced to rational principles without losing something. As Volf puts it, “there are no generic human beings,” and we only learn how to be human in concrete, particular, unique traditions and circumstances. 37 Hermeneutics can attend to such particulars while avoiding both arrogant universalism and lazy relativism.
Faith in the universality of Enlightenment rationality is waning even in the West, and the recent turn against cosmopolitan identity politics and global liberalism reads like a significant long-term trend. 38 If the trend continues, we can anticipate a Nietzschean clash of truth-claims and lazy relativism. If there is no universal civilization, if there is no appealing to a universal global home, and if Western liberal-democratic capitalism has failed to become a worldwide model, then we are left with nothing more than clashing power centers, each secure in their own beliefs but unable to achieve understanding with others. All we have are “values” held by different cultures. Instead of seeking to persuade others to adopt our vision of truth—instead of committing to the possibility of seeking an actual, universal common Truth that exists, however partially we grasp it epistemologically—in this dangerous world all we can do is fight to defend our values. Leaders seeking to whip up fear and resentment in order to rally their people to defend their values certainly find the “value of having enemies” (to quote Nietzsche again). 39
This turn to the will-to-power is evident in President Trump’s July 2017 speech in Poland. Allegedly written by aide Stephen Miller, the speech is a call to arms in defense of Western civilization—primarily against the threat of “radical Islamic terrorism.” 40 As Trump and Miller put it, “While we will always welcome new citizens who share our values and love our people, our borders will be closed to terrorism and extremism of any kind.” 41 Instead of arguing for the universality of American and Western ideals—instead of defining a universal standard by which to evaluate terrorism and extremism—the Miller-Trump camp sees only values embraced by Americans, Poles, and the West. Muslim immigrants, it seems, must adopt those values. And those values, far from being universal, are particular to “our community of nations”—a community that writes symphonies, “pursues innovation,” and celebrates “our ancient heroes [and] embrace[s] our timeless traditions and customs.” 42 Unlike other civilizations, implies Miller-Trump, “we” in the West share several distinctive values:
We reward brilliance. We strive for excellence, and cherish inspiring works of art that honor God. We treasure the rule of law and protect the right to free speech and free expression. We empower women as pillars of our society and of our success. We put faith and family, not government and bureaucracy, at the center of our lives. And we debate everything. We challenge everything. We seek to know everything so that we can better know ourselves. And above all, we value the dignity of every human life, protect the rights of every person, and share the hope of every soul to live in freedom. That is who we are. Those are the priceless ties that bind us together as nations, as allies, and as a civilization. 43 We are not about to “lose our freedom to a lack of pride and confidence in our values,” said President Trump. 44 Instead, “Our own fight for the West does not begin on the battlefield—it begins with our minds, our wills, and our souls. … Our freedom, our civilization, and our survival depend on these bonds of history, culture, and memory.” 45 Only by summoning up the will to be who we are, to believe in our values, to claim our identity, to defend ourselves with strength, it seems, can we face enemies like radical Islam.
But there are doubts. The West may be in decline, and America may be weak. “Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilization in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it?” 46 Weakness could be fatal: “if we do not have strong families and strong values, then we will be weak and will not survive.” 47
Nonetheless, Trump concluded, “Our values will prevail. Our people will thrive. And our civilization will triumph.” 48 Although the words are Reaganesque, the tone is Nietzschean. Instead of describing the evil of the enemy and defending the truth or goodness of our ideals, the speech upholds Western strength and willfulness as the antidote to threats such as radical Islam.
No argument is made that Western values or the Western way of life align with any higher ideals. Never uttered are words such as “ideals,” “Judeo-Christian,” “Catholic,” “church,” “democracy,” or even “heritage” (although Saint John Paul II is mentioned as a “hero” alongside Copernicus and Chopin). No argument is made about specific alleged evils or abuses in the Islamic world. Strength trumps moral argument in the Poland speech.
Instead of appealing to a progressive evolution of freedom in history (as the Kennedy and Obama administrations often did) or the universality of American and Western ideals for all peoples (as the Reagan and George W. Bush presidencies often did), Trump describes Western identity in tribal terms: we share unique values, and we defend them. We do not persuade outsiders to embrace them under the ruse that our values are universal or that history is vindicating those values. Those values are ours. We possess them and cannot share them with outsiders. Outsiders can convert to Western civilization, but there is no neutral ground; there is no universal standard. To imagine that Western civilization is for all peoples would be “false, immoral, and dangerous” (to quote Huntington again). 49 Our job is to defend Western values—which are not the same thing as universal principles—against all rivals.
Not only does Trump’s speech echo Huntington. It also echoes Nietzsche, who asserted that “strength of the will, hardness, and the capacity for long-range decisions must belong to the concept of ‘greatness.’” 50 For Nietzsche, the pursuit of false universals like peace or common humanity was weakness. It dragged great, powerful, and noble men (yes, only men!) down to the level of the common person. Noble souls seeking greatness and asserting their will-to-power, for Nietzsche, would be the salvation of a West otherwise committed to the leveling herd-mentality of democracy. However evocative of the present moment, Nietzsche’s philosophy of power traps us in relativism and leads us away from the possibility of common truths between civilizations. 51 If there is only the assertion of the will-to-power, and if we cannot appeal to universal or global ideals, then we are doomed to clashes between the most powerful civilizations, with nothing in common to evaluate their claims.
How could we find a way out of this impasse without appealing to a false universal such as Reason or the superiority of a secular Western civilization? How do we recognize the particularity and variety of different civilizations’ truth claims while also offering some notion of unity without imposing it? How, then, do we find a way forward to promote dialogue that is premised neither on false universality nor on a false relativism in which only power decides? Hermeneutical hospitality is one attractive path.
Hermeneutical Hospitality Rather than Reconciliation as a Way Forward
Without specifying all the details, a model of hospitable understanding offers a path forward between universalism and relativism. The actual practices of hermeneutical hospitality between traditions can recognize both unity and diversity while remaining grounded in concrete human activity. Hermeneutics is aimed at understanding, while hospitality is aimed at maintaining relationships with the alienated and estranged. 52 If the world is to escape civilization clashes, practices such as hermeneutics and hospitality, yoked together, could help. Hermeneutical hospitality would allow practitioners to better envision diplomacy; interreligious dialogues; the interpretation of texts, cultures, practices, and peoples; and the reason for eating meals with strangers as healing practices. 53 Thankfully, all of these are already being practiced globally, if not always successfully. Re-imagining them as part of hermeneutical hospitality can inspire us to transcend Huntington’s limits. Yale theologian Miroslav Volf first coined the term “hermeneutical hospitality” as a starting point for interreligious dialogue. 54 Eating meals with people of other faiths, exchanging gifts with them, or working with them, are all ways of practicing hospitality. However, Volf argued that merely exchanging gifts and carrying out deeds of love would be insufficient for interreligious or inter-civilizational dialogues. Hospitality and good deeds alone will not save the world’s religions from clashing.
Hermeneutical truth-seeking is also necessary, according to Volf. Since each religion or civilization “makes a truth-claim of universal validity,” they are committed to the concept of truth. 55 “And yet,” writes Volf, “each makes this claim from a decidedly particular standpoint.” 56 These claims are made from within the sacred “hearth” of religious civilizations, so reading sacred texts together would be a way to embrace both particularity and the pursuit of unifying truths. 57
Committed members of civilizations should therefore, according to Volf, “enter sympathetically into others’ efforts to interpret their sacred texts as well as listen to how others perceive them as readers of their own sacred texts” in a search for “truth and mutual understanding.” 58 Such practices would not necessarily breed agreement, but “such hermeneutical exchanging of gifts will help people of faith to better understand their own and others’ sacred texts, to see each other as companions rather than combatants in the struggle for truth, and to practice beneficence toward each other.” 59 Instead of appealing to a false universal or retreating into incommensurate religious and civilizational camps, the quest to understand one’s own civilization’s culturally and historically bound truth claims—as they relate to another civilization’s—would provide a starting point for interpreters on both sides.
Surprisingly, Volf did little more to describe the model of hermeneutical hospitality, and he abandoned it in his most recent book on globalization and world religions, where he argued instead that religions and civilizations should pursue reconciliation. 60 Instead of a mutual search for truth, Volf now advocates a mutual search for justice. He asserts that the conditions of globalization mean that “we cannot exit relationships and must therefore learn to live together. When inevitable conflicts occur, we must seek to reconcile.” 61 Conflicts may be inevitable, but labelling civilizations as offenders and victims raises the stakes. While such labels are entirely plausible as part of mature civilizational and religious dialogues, they leave behind the humbler process of seeking understanding.
Volf’s morally charged language of reconciliation thus moves inter-civilizational encounters from a mutual quest to understand each other’s truths to a quasijudicial encounter between perpetrators and sufferers of injustice. Who would be the neutral arbiter, the global Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to facilitate the person being the reconciliation process? Furthermore, many members of a civilization may not recognize any wrongdoing on their part. The reconciliation approach would therefore risk alienating potential participants from the start. No one wants to go before a tribunal if they might be labeled an offender.
By contrast, diplomacy, interreligious dialogue, hermeneutics, and hospitality are all modest practices that should precede reconciliation processes, as helpful as those might someday be. Each of these modest practices can offer concrete alternatives to both the reconciliation model and Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations, without stipulating a falsely universal grounding. Consider each of the four sets of practices.
First, the traditional practice of interstate diplomacy reflects both hermeneutical interpretations and the hospitality of shared meals. Curiosity and the comparing of perspectives, after all, are basic to diplomatic practice. At the heart of diplomatic exchanges between countries is the effort to interpret another society for the people back home while also helping the host country understand the diplomat’s own people back home. Bridging the perspectives of two societies—bringing each side toward understanding—is simply the fundamental task for diplomats.
As one former senior American diplomat put it,
American diplomats must continue to listen to other societies, to sense the differences and the similarities. In so doing they can do what many Americans have so often done: convey an interest in another people, another culture, without losing the perspective of the outsider. 62
The practice of interpretation—both listening to and speaking to the Other—is just what diplomats do. And they play a vital role in allowing diverse societies to communicate with one another everyday both within civilization blocs and across civilizational fault-lines. A person who speaks the languages of two or more civilizations fluently can become a mediator, an interpreter, a bridge—an ambassador. 63
Ambassadors are also skilled in the practice of hospitality—constantly rotating the roles of guest and host between embassies and home governments. We need only briefly consider this remark by an ambassador and former chief of protocol for the United States Department of State to recognize how hospitality practices are essential for diplomacy: We truly feel that food and service, dining, hospitality, is all a part of how we offer our diplomacy; how we can prepare for the growth of the relationship, the bilateral conversation. All of that needs to take place at the table. … [I]f people feel, again, well-respected, welcomed and, of course, well-fed, diplomacy can take place at its highest form. 64
It is not hard to imagine the growth of relationships and bilateral conversations at tables where members of different civilizations feel respected and welcome. While conflict grabs the headlines, the practice of diplomatic dialogue—whether the diplomacy is between cultures, religious groups, countries, or civilizations—is slow, messy, and concrete; it is made up of small gestures. But diplomacy is the practice of repeating the small gestures of giving and receiving of hospitality while seeking to understand one another.
Second, the continuing practice of interreligious dialogue—defined not as a lowest-common-denominator ecumenism, but as cooperative dialogue—assumes that hermeneutical hospitality is not just possible but normal and salutary. In a seminal article, Thomas Banchoff defines interreligious dialogue in part as “members of different religious communities speaking out of their own traditions in an effort to better understand and more effectively navigate inevitable cultural, ethical, and political differences.” 65
One model of such dialogue is the Scriptural Reasoning process, which Volf also commends. Its chief architect, Peter Ochs, describes it as a kind of “hearth-tohearth dialogue,” in which the Abrahamic faiths read their sacred texts together in a way that “coaxes potential adversaries to share with one another some of the warmth and honesty they typically display only within the intimacy of their religious homes.” 66 According to Ochs, Scriptural Reasoning practitioners have found that “these sources of warmth are, contrary to all our expectations, the best resources for long-lasting conflict transformation.” 67
Over time, participants leave their sessions of reading deeply sacred “hearth” texts with other Abrahamic believers without changing their beliefs; in fact, they often report that “these sessions leave them with a greater affection for their own religion,” but they also recognize that their own reading of their scriptures is not the only way of reading them, even if they view others’ readings as “weak.” 68 Most participants leave with “the modified conviction that their own reading of scripture may be the best or truest one, but that the scripture also tolerates a few other readings” that may be “weaker” but not “intolerable.” 69 Merely tolerating other readings is enough to “transform the conditions for violent disagreement (where A is true, B is false, and there are no other possible options) into conditions for noviolent disagreement (where A is true and several other options are less true).” 70 And that might just be enough to ease clashes of civilizations.
Whether it is a Palestinian Muslim debating an Israeli Jew over claims to Jerusalem, or the Pope visiting the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Orthodox Church, or Rohingya Muslims telling their stories to Burmese Buddhists, inter-civilizational dialogue already occurs constantly in our pluralistic world, both within and across borders. Attempts to engage in dialogue with members of other civilizations are already at work. And these attempts, as with more formal interreligious dialogues, are “bound to grow more, not less, significant in the decades ahead.” 71 Whether such dialogues will ameliorate conflict naturally depends on wider political factors, including the politics within religious communities, but these ongoing activities may be evidence of common grace restraining some of the worst impulses toward civilization clashes. Without such sparks of light and sprinklings of salt, the global religious landscape would certainly be darker and less flavorful.
Third, the humble practice of hermeneutics envisions members of one civilizational tradition merely seeking to understand another tradition. In the words of its foremost theorist, Hans-Georg Gadamer, “This is hermeneutics: to let what seems to be far and alienated speak again.” 72 He was speaking of humanities scholars retrieving elements of the past, but he also explicitly endorsed the possibility of dialogue and “communicative understanding” between Western and other cultures. 73 Gadamer’s interpretation of the “hermeneutic circle” turns out to be a more constructive starting point for inter-civilizational dialogue than processes of reconciliation. As Gadamer noted, this image of the circle is less a “prescription for the practice of understanding” than a “description of the way interpretive understanding is achieved.” 74 As soon as one member of a civilization tries to understand another, they start traversing the hermeneutic circle. If Gadamer is correct, it is characteristic of the way all humans, through language, seek to grasp the meanings of others.
Although hermeneutics originated as an approach to translating and interpreting ancient biblical texts, the same approach works for intercultural dialogue. By circumnavigating the common interpretive path—as humanities scholars and interpreters of sacred texts do every day—the curious interpreter of another culture avoids both universality and relativism.
The interpreter must start with humility, recognizing that she approaches the other civilization with unseen prejudices, which are simply “biases of our openness to the world.” 75 The universalists arrogantly assume that rationality will lead them to truth. However, in practice, even the most rational reader or interculturally savvy person will be unaware of their starting assumptions when entering a new text or culture. If that person is humble enough to learn from that Other, she will appreciate how her existing prejudices could hinder her learning. Instead, then, of being “enclosed within a wall of prejudices … we welcome just that guest who promises something new to our curiosity.” 76 Such epistemological humility, recognizing that one’s knowledge is limited by one’s own time and culture while remaining curious about the guest, is a first step toward better understanding.
A second stop on the circle is recognizing risk. Any careful interpreter recognizes that understanding a text or person or culture “is ultimately selfunderstanding.” 77 To begin to understand another, we must first recognize our own biases and limitations in order to understand the object of our attention. Thus, as Gadamer puts it, “Understanding is an adventure and, like any adventure, is dangerous.” 78 After all, the adventure may expose our prejudices—or open us to the potential danger of a prejudiced Other who wants to harm us. There is always a risk that genuine engagement with another will cause us to change our views. Afraid of risk, many interpreters stop here.
Assuming risk tolerance and the goodwill of both parties, a third step on the circle is translation. The curious dialogue partner’s encounter with a truly foreign culture or person will require translating that foreignness into meaningful terms. A persistent process of translation and interpretation may well require immersion in the original language and context of the object of curiosity. Such an immersion eventually causes the interpreter to be aware of the strangeness of this Other and the inaccuracy of one’s own assumptions and language to make sense of them. As one is “pulled up short” by the Other (the text, culture, or person), either it “does not yield any meaning at all or its meaning is not compatible with what we had expected.” 79 This strangeness provokes questioning, and “to understand the questionableness of something is already to be questioning.” 80
Questions lead to a decisive step on the circle: transformation. In order to answer their questions about the Other, the interpreter confronts her own assumptions. In order to translate the strangeness of the other into one’s native vernacular, one must rethink one’s starting point. As a result, the interpreter’s assumptions and prejudices will begin to shift. As Gadamer put it, “The important thing is to be aware of one’s own bias, so that the text [or person or civilization] can present itself in all its otherness and thus assert its own truth against one’s fore-meanings.” 81 Gadamer holds out the possibility that discussion partners can find a “common language” and thus “part from one another as changed beings. The individual perspectives with which they entered upon the discussion have been transformed, and so they are transformed themselves.” 82
Having traveled the hermeneutic circle, the humble interpreter thus leaves the encounter with a richer understanding of both the object she sought to understand and her own previously held prejudices: to use Gadamer’s famous image, the horizons of both the interpreter and the foreign object are fused or unified. 83 Humbly practicing this sort of hermeneutics would surely be a start toward overcoming clashes of civilizations.
What would this look like in practice? One could imagine a Muslim-Christian dialogue about the divinity of Jesus and the Crucifixion, with Muslims finding the Christian story of the son of God dying on a cross and being resurrected two days later quite scandalously strange. If so, at least the two sides would be starting together on the hermeneutical circle. No false universals here: only real people seeking to compare stories, to share meaning, and—perhaps, if they can handle the risks—to find a common language.
But it is not easy or simple. Consider the different interpretations of Moses in the Torah and in the Qur’an:
for Moses in the Bible, the whole objective, the whole point of his life, is to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land. To get them to Israel. Moses in the Koran [sic] does not have that. The Promised Land is not even a factor: it’s not mentioned. Of course, the Koran doesn’t want to glorify the land of Israel. It wants to glorify Mecca and Medina. Therefore, the whole reason Moses lived—according to the Bible—is not mentioned in the Koran. They’re the same person, but they have different meanings. 84
Coming from a Jewish author retracing the stories of the Torah, this strangeness and awareness of difference is risky, yet it is precisely the kind of strangeness that hermeneutics and Scriptural Reasoning will evoke. This is not vague ecumenism but a concrete discussion around hearth texts which might allow the “far and alienated [to] speak again” but which also might just seem threatening or odd. 85 Hermeneutics, after all, is risky and dangerous. For non-scriptural religions such as Buddhism—or for less “religious” civilizations such as Confucianism or Western secularism—the practice of “comparative canonical inquiry” provides a parallel path between “nineteenth-century liberal triumphalism” with its notions of “universal human discourse” and “twentieth-century-post-colonial indignation” that “reifies civilizations or groups within them into sacrosanct and impervious ‘identities.’” 86 Joshua Mitchell, who coined the term, describes comparative canonical inquiry broadly as returning “to the origins of all durable civilizations, and trac[ing] their development through the great ideas, often at odds with one another, that are registered, again and again, in their respective canons.” 87 Whether comparing Plato and the Buddha or the Bible and the Bhagavad Gita—classic texts could be read across civilizational boundaries, provoking all sorts of conversations between readers. As with the Scriptural Reasoning process, comparative inquiry across canonical texts could be hermeneutical practice at its best.
Finally, the rich practice of hospitality provides the context for such practices by locating them spatially and giving them a clear purpose. Spatially, as Huntington recognized, there is no neutral ground for civilizations. Hospitality recognizes that dialogues between members of civilizations will always occur in non-neutral spaces, with power dynamics often making one participant the host and the other a guest. One civilization will often own the table and the hearth; the other will be the stranger. Hospitality, however, creates a context that could lead to a common language between host and guest:
A healthy home environment makes space for human flourishing, by inviting people who do not belong to the family to visit and find themselves refreshed. When a family welcomes visitors to the table, the dynamic of the home changes. Yes, the family remains the core, but this outward focus of hospitality renews the visitor and family members alike. 88
Rather than seeking an abstract universality of reason, rather than proclaiming an absolute difference between civilizations, and rather than labeling civilizations as offenders and victims, hospitality suggests that hosts and guests of different civilizations would need to gather at tables and around hearths to discuss their sacred texts and stories, recognizing their spatial and historical places.
Hospitality also offers a purpose for hermeneutical, interreligious, or diplomatic dialogues. According to Jews, Muslims, and Christians, hospitality is essential to understanding the work of God. 89 Welcoming strangers, then, is not only a religious duty but also a way to respond to divine generosity and to reflect its image. To cite the book of Hebrews, which recalls both Abraham’s welcoming of three strangers in Genesis 18 and the Torah’s many commands to care for aliens, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2). As Paul notes in Romans 5:10, humans were first enemies of God who were later reconciled to God; God’s hospitality to humans saves them. 90 The Qur’an also tells of “the honored guests of Abraham” whom he greeted with peace and a fatted calf (51:25–26). Following the example of Abraham, Jews, Christians, and Muslims have compelling reasons to be hospitable. Remaining rooted at home, while caring for strangers, is a way of imitating the divine.
“Mutual hospitality” is an essential precondition for Scriptural Reasoning and for real communication between the members of clashing civilizations. 91 Assuming that the risks are tolerable and that hospitality is mutual, one could imagine outbreaks of understanding or tolerance. Hearing from a stranger might even allow someone to receive good or surprising news: thanks to Christians, a Muslim might hear the story of the Crucifixion and Resurrection; or, thanks to Muslims, a Christian might ponder anew the transcendence of the one Creator God who will also judge all peoples at the end of time; or, thanks to Jews, Christians might learn to read their scriptures more faithfully.
Hermenutics without practices of hospitality would be a purely academic exercise. Hospitality without hermeneutics would be a meal without curiosity, conversation, or the possibility of conversion. Our world of conflict needs both hermeneutics and hospitality.
Toward Dialogues of Civilizations: Seek First to Understand
Although Huntington wrote little about how dialogue could occur, both hermeneutics and hospitality—hitched together—can, and already do, help civilizations engage in real dialogue. Real dialogue requires asking real questions of other civilizations that are aimed at understanding first before seeking to be understood. 92 Diplomats, missionaries, aid workers, therapists, citizens, pastors, rabbis, imams, monks, sheikhs, meditation leaders, priests, professors, and others are already asking these kinds of real questions of their counterparts from other religions every day, whenever they try to understand what someone else believes. We need only pray for and practice more such attempts to understand first. Common grace suggests that such efforts are never in vain.
In a world of clashing civilizations, Christians can embrace the practice of hermeneutical hospitality between members of rival civilizations as one way to bless the world. Making space around the hearth and table for civilizational strangers is a way to be light and salt in a world of identity conflicts. 93
Cite this article
- Thus rethinking earlier views expressed in Scott Waalkes, “Prescience and Paradigms,” Fides et Historia 36 (Summer/Fall 2004): 104–109.
- Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996), 13–14.
- Miroslav Volf, A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2011), 141.
- Huntington, Clash of Civilizations, 320–321.
- Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, trans. R. J. Collingdale (New York: Penguin, 1990), 53.
- Huntington, Clash of Civilizations, 14; Volf, Public Faith, 136. For the reconciliation model, see Volf, Flourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalizing World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015), 161–194.
- Huntington, Clash of Civilizations, 258; Robert D. Kaplan, “Looking the World in the Eye,” The Atlantic, December 2001, (accessed August 1, 2018).
- Huntington, Clash of Civilizations, 258.
- Ibid., 216.
- Scott Shane, Matthew Rosenberg, and Eric Lipton, “Trump Pushes Dark View of Islam to Center of U.S. Policy-Making,” New York Times Website, February 1, 2017 (accessed August 1, 2018).
- Joshua Mitchell, “After Globalism and Identity Politics,” Providence Magazine (August 29, 2016), (accessed August 1, 2018); Joshua Mitchell, “Donald Trump Does Have Ideas—and We’d Better Pay Attention to Them,” Politico Magazine (September 15, 2016), (accessed August 1, 2018).
- Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History,” National Interest 16 (Summer 1989): 3-18; Fukuyama, End of History and the Last Man (New York: Free Press, 1992).
- Fukuyama, “End of History,” 4.
- Fukuyama, End of History and the Last Man, 339.
- Thomas L. Friedman, The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2000), 239–264.
- Huntington, Clash of Civilizations, 21.
- Ibid., 21.
- Ibid., 34.
- Samuel P. Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations?” Foreign Affairs 72.3 (Summer 1993): 25.
- Ibid., 29–39.
- Ibid., 29.
- Ibid., 41.
- Huntington, Clash of Civilizations, 98.
- Ibid., 213.
- Ibid., 310.
- Ibid., 311. Huntington’s anxieties about the need for Americans to reaffirm “their commitment to Western civilization” and to reject “the divisive siren calls of multiculturalism” (Ibid., 307) also resonate with present anxieties.
- Dennis R. Hoover and Douglas M. Johnston, “Religion and the Global Agenda: From the Margins to the Mainstream?” In Religion and Foreign Affairs: Essential Readings, eds. Dennis R. Hoover and Douglas M. Johnston (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2012), 3.
- Huntington, Clash of Civilizations, 320. Emphasis added.
- Ibid., 321.
- Manfred Steger, Globalization: A Very Short Introduction, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 10.
- Immanuel Kant, “On the Common Saying: ‘This May Be True in Theory, But It Does Not Apply in Practice,’” in Political Writings, ed. Hans Weiss (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1970), 90.
- John Rawls, Political Liberalism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993).
- William Schweiker, Theological Ethics and Global Dynamics: In the Time of Many Worlds (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004), 14.
- Ibid., 18.
- Ibid., 153.
- Volf, Public Faith, 135.
- Mitchell, “After Globalism and Identity Politics;” Mitchell, “Donald Trump.”
- Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, 53.
- Tony Warren, “Trump Warsaw Speech to Focus on Poland’s National Example,” Weekly Standard, July 5, 2017 (accessed August 1, 2018).
- “Remarks by President Trump to the People of Poland,” White House Website (July 6, 2017), para. 38, < https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/remarks-president-trumppeople-poland/> (accessed August 1, 2018).
- Ibid., paras. 44–45.
- Ibid., paras. 46–48.
- Ibid., para. 51.
- Ibid., para 66.
- Ibid., para. 57.
- Ibid., para. 58.
- Ibid., para. 67.
- Huntington, Clash of Civilizations, 310.
- Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future, trans. Walter Kauffman (New York: Random House, 1989), 137 [Part Six, section 212].
- See Alasdair MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988), 352–353, 368 on Nietzsche’s “perspectivism.”
- Friedrich Nietzsche, Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality, trans. R. J. Hollingdale (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 158 [aphorism 319] defines hospitality specifically as a way of relating to the stranger and the enemy. Thanks to Shawn Floyd for drawing this text to my attention.
- On the importance of the details of such inherently political practices, see Robert Joustra, “Whose Religion? Which Flourishing?” Comment Magazine (February 17, 2016), (accessed August 1, 2018).
- Miroslav Volf, “A Voice of One’s Own: Public Faith in a Pluralistic World,” in Democracy and the New Religious Pluralism, ed. Thomas Banchoff (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 280; this essay was reprinted four years later as a chapter in his book Public Faith.
- Volf, Public Faith, 135.
- Peter Ochs, “The Possibilities and Limits of Inter-Religious Dialogue,” in The Oxford Handbook of Religion, Conflict, and Peacebuilding, eds. Atalia Omer, R. Scott Appleby, and David Little (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 493.
- Volf, Public Faith, 136. See David F. Ford and C. C. Pecknold, eds., The Promise of Scriptural Reasoning (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006).
- Volf, Public Faith, 136.
- Volf, Flourishing, 161–194.
- Ibid., 174.
- David D. Newsom, Diplomacy and American Democracy (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1988), 219.
- David I. Smith, Learning from the Stranger: Christian Faith and Cultural Diversity (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 125.
- “The Art Of Diplomacy Has Its Rules,” National Public Radio, July 8, 2012, The person being interviewed and speaking here was career foreign service officer Capricia Penavic Marshall.
- Thomas Banchoff, “Interreligious Dialogue and International Relations,” in Rethinking Religion and World Affairs, eds. Timothy Samuel Shah, Alfred Stepan, and Monica Duffy Toft (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 204.
- Ochs, “Possibilities and Limits,” 495.
- Ibid., 505.
- Ibid., 494.
- Ibid., 495.
- Ibid., 494.
- Banchoff, “Interreligious Dialogue,” 212. One prominent example of such dialogue, analyzed by Banchoff, was the Muslim-Christian effort that culminated in the publication of A Common Word Between Us and You, which sought to build understanding around the two great commandments to love God and neighbor.
- Hans-Georg Gadamer, “Practical Philosophy as a Model of the Human Sciences,” Research in Phenomenology 9.1 (1979): 83.
- Ibid., 85.
- Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, 2nd ed., trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall (New York: Continuum, 1989), 266.
- Hans-Georg Gadamer, “The Universality of the Hermeneutical Problem,” in Philosophical Hermeneutics, trans. David E. Linge (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966), 9.
- Ibid., 9.
- Gadamer, Truth and Method, 260.
- Hans-Georg Gadamer, “Hermeneutics as Practical Philosophy,” in Reason in the Age of Science, trans. Frederick G. Lawrence (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1981), 109–110.
- Gadamer, Truth and Method, 268.
- Ibid., 375.
- Ibid., 269.
- Gadamer, “Hermeneutics as Practical Philosophy,” 110.
- Gadamer, Truth and Method, 307, 397, 576.
- Bruce Feiler, Walking the Bible: A Journey by Land Through the Five Books of Moses (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 370.
- Gadamer, “Practical Philosophy,” 83.
- Joshua Mitchell, Tocqueville in Arabia: Dilemmas in a Democratic Age (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 81–82. Thanks to David Beer for this reference.
- Joshua Mitchell, “Reflections on Political Theory and the Humanities in the Global Age,” Perspectives on Politics 14 (December 2016), 1097.
- Trevin Wax, “The Hospitality That Makes a Church Stand Out,” The Gospel Coalition, January 18, 2018.
- Mona Siddiqui, Hospitality and Islam: Welcoming in God’s Name (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015); Elizabeth Newman, Untamed Hospitality: Welcoming God and Other Strangers (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2007); Christine Pohl, Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990); Hans Boersma, Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross: Reappropriating the Atonement Tradition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004); Reinhard Hütter, “Hospitality and Truth: The Disclosure of Practices in Worship and Doctrine,” in Practicing Theology: Beliefs and Practices in Christian Worship, eds. Miroslav Volf and Dorothy C. Bass (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002); Matthew Kaemingk, Christian Hospitality and Muslim Immigration in an Age of Fear (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2018), 181–187.
- Boersma, Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross, 21, 257–261.
- Daniel W. Hardy, “The Promise of Scriptural Reasoning,” in The Promise of Scriptural Reasoning, eds. David F. Ford and C. C. Pecknold (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006), 207. Civilizational actors not committed to hospitality and dialogue are a hugely significant problem but one that remains outside the scope of this essay.
- The italicized portion is adapted from a prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assisi and is also a central theme of Lee C. Camp, Who Is My Enemy? Questions American Christians Must Face about Islam—and Themselves (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2011), 6–7.
- An earlier draft of this paper was presented at the Ciceronian Society Conference at Hope College in March 2018, where I received several helpful comments from discussant Jeff Polet and audience members. Thanks also to the Drafts Group for comments on a first draft. I dedicate this essay to the memory of my late mentor R. K. Ramazani, who called publicly for a dialogue of civilizations even before Huntington’s book was published.