The rationale behind interreligious dialogue
WHILE SOME Christians are barely catching up with what has happened in the field of Christian ecumenism over the last century, a new trend of interreligious ( ‘interfaith’ or ‘the wider ecumenism’) dialogue has taken hold and mushroomed, especially since the events of the 11th September 2001. Some would even say it has put Christian ecumenism in the shade. While an enthusiasm on the part of many people and agencies is to be applauded, the reasons why people might engage in interreligious dialogue are not always apparent. And while politicians might support the rationale that interreligious dialogue lessens the chances of terrorism, Christians ought to scrutinize the reasons with greater perspicacity and faith. The aim of this article is to examine, from a Christian perspective (rather than a political or sociological one), the rationale for engaging in interreligious dialogue and to do this with reference to official documents of both the World Council of Churches and of the Roman Catholic Church. In the case of the former we will be referring to its 1979 document, Guidelines on Dialogue with people of Living Faiths and Ideologies, and the 2002 document, Ecumenical considerations for dialogue and relations with people of other religions. In addition the WCC publishes the journal, Current Dialogue1 which provides updates on what is happening in interreligious dialogue. The Roman Catholic Church bases its approach on the documents of the Second Vatican Council, especially Nostra Aetate (hereafter NA) and papal teachings. The Pontifical Council of Interreligious Dialogue also produces a journal, Pro Dialogo2 for the latest developments. Of course other than using official documents to establish the rationale, one could examine what theologians are saying on the topic, but that will be left to another occasion.
Although the focus of this article is on the reasons why one engages in interreligious dialogue, it is useful to draw attention to the many meanings of ‘dialogue’ in this context. Dialogue takes place between two or more people (or groups)3 ; it is an encounter4 . It is a two-way street with both listening and speaking constituent elements of this encounter. Without both speaking and listening, it would lapse into a monologue. In this sense ‘conversation’ might be a better word. Lest one thinks that dialogue only takes place amongst learned theologians around a table (dialogue of discourse), it is essential to remind ourselves of the distinction made between various kinds of dialogue: we speak of the dialogue of life (an encounter), of actions (‘mutual witness’)5 , of discourse and of religious experience. Added to this is the further point that ‘dialogues’ may be formal or informal. Thus when we use the word ‘dialogue’ we actually refer to a range of meanings, although there is perhaps the constant danger that the word is reduced to the single meaning of the dialogue of discourse.
The rationale for Christian ecumenism (as opposed to interreligious dialogue) has also varied greatly. In the past the Christian message appeared to the listeners to be fragmented because the churches were seen to be in competition and even, on occasions, to be contradicting each other. This caused scandal among those to whom the gospel was preached. For this reason, some would say, the churches need to unite so that the gospel is seen to be one.
Others see ecumenism as necessary and pragmatic because the denominational numbers are dwindling and therefore Christians need to unite (especially in the light of a perceived advance from Islam); yet another group sees it as something to be done because the hierarchy demands it (hence the establishment of ecumenical commissions, which will appear in annual reports and satisfy those higher up) ; or, to give a humanistic reason, because it is better and nicer to make friends than enemies. Thus it is better to establish good relationships between Christian churches. This latter reason is supported by the amount of hatred and violence in the world which needs to be overcome by kindness, so the argument goes. Then there is the theological reason of doing the will of Christ who prayed that his followers be one, and the shame at the scandal that Christians have caused by their divisions.
What it is Not
If now we go back to interreligious dialogue, what are the reasons for engaging in this activity? Before we do that, it is necessary to mention and reject certain ideas by clarifying what interreligious dialogue is not. This would not be necessary but for the simple reason that some people express these as valid reasons. Interreligious dialogue is not an attempt to work towards a new homogenous world religion. There is no thought of trying to amalgamate the world’s religions into a new super-religion. Nor again does it try to find the lowest common denominator among religions.
Associated with the above, there is another unworthy reason which one should mention: careerism. Interreligious dialogue should not spring from a personal or career motive. The opinion that it is good for one’s career and promotional chances to be seen to be promoting interreligious dialogue as it is the political flavour of the month, should be rejected as unworthy. This applies to church-related people as much as to others. The opinion takes the position that it looks good to be seen to be promoting good relationships between religions. Anyone who is worth their salt is doing it. One’s superiors and masters will note this and promotion may be close at hand. It can in fact be a form of hollow grandstanding and will be seen as inauthentic. A Buddhist monk related to me how he had initially collaborated with interreligious forums, but after a while he judged that they were occasions for some people to grandstand and that people were not serious about listening and learning from other religions. This careerism approach represents the instrumentalization of interreligious dialogue. The exact opposite of this approach is mentioned in the WCC Guidelines for Interreligious Dialogue, when it says the aim of dialogue is the spiritual encounter between two (#22). It is important that there be some of the genuine ‘passing over’ into the other’s shoes, if dialogue is to be fruitful.
Here it might be appropriate to situate the whole discourse about interreligious dialogue into a larger framework. The rationale for engaging in interreligious dialogue is closely linked to the theology of religions. In the last century much has been written about the theology of religions and I do not intend to recount that history here, but it should be noted in passing.6 On the side of the Protestant churches, the chequered history of trying to develop a theology of religions, can be traced from the 1910 Conference in Edinburgh to the present, as Ariarajah does in his book, Hindus and Christians7 , and to which other theologians like, Kraemer, Samartha, Newbigin, Cragg, Coward, Race, Cantwell Smith, Cobb, Lindbeck and Hick have contributed in a significant way. On the other side, the Roman Catholic Church in recent times established its official position at the Second Vatican Council.8 Catholic theologians who have helped to develop the thinking on this topic would include, Rahner, Küng, Dupuis, Ratzinger, Knitter, Panikkar, Griffiths and D’Costa. Suffice it to say that both the WCC and the Roman Catholic Church are still engaged with formulating an adequate theology of religions.
So what are the more positive reasons for engaging in interreligious dialogue? First of all there are a number of pragmatic reasons expressed in a variety of different ways. We will work through them in the paragraphs below.
Interreligious dialogue is useful to prevent terrorism, war, and fighting. Guidelines on Dialogue, points this out when it says that dialogue will meet the needs of the wider community ‘in which peace and justice may be more fully realized’. 9 According to the same document dialogue will help to ‘free religion from being misused in conflict as a fault line between communities’ (#7). Similarly it can help build peace in another part of the world through good example. Benedict XVI in his address to the president of Religious Affairs, in Turkey, in November, 2006, pointed out that as men and women of religion, we are challenged by the widespread longing for peace (#10). The Dalai Lama confirms this when he says that concord between religions is no pie-in-the-sky: ‘It is possible and under present world conditions it is extremely important’.10
The need to promote good relationships among all nations, is another reason to engage in dialogue. Nostra Aetate (the ‘magna carta’ of Catholic interreligious dialogue11 says as much: dialogue is also necessary to maintain good fellowship.12 Benedict XVI was doing this in his greeting to the Turks with the words: ‘I now have the joy of meeting you, the President of the Religious Affairs Directorate. I offer you my sentiments of respect, in recognition of your great responsibilities, and I extend my greetings to all the religious leaders of Turkey, especially the Grand Muftis of Ankara and Istanbul. In your person, Mr President, I greet all the Muslims in Turkey with particular esteem and affectionate regard.’ 13
There is also the reason that relates to the good in others. Wherever good values are found they should be preserved. So we find NA saying that one reason to pursue dialogue is to preserve and promote the spiritual and moral goods found among those men (= men and women!) as well as the values in their society and culture.14 Close to this point is that of the common good. Christians should consider the common good, which is not so easy in contemporary western society where personal good often takes precedence. But the WCC has expressed it by saying that Christians should engage in dialogue, ‘so as to contribute from their resources to the good of the community of humankind in its wholeness’.15 Allied to this is the idea of ensuring that others enjoy life to the full.16 Here the scope of Christian mission is emphasized – a very important point to which we will return below. Everyone, all people, should enjoy life to the full, not just the Churches’ immediate congregations.
Then there is the reason that springs from the importance of knowledge about other religions and the reality and growing awareness of religious diversity.17 These reasons are expressed in various ways thus: it is better to know something about strange religions so that people can get on together; it is good for business with people of different religions; if we live together we might as well try to know a little about each other; avoiding clashes with neighbouring nations of a different religion is worthwhile. The WCC makes the point that religion has a growing role in public life, hence the need to know about others.18 This latter reason is all the more obvious if we think of the movements of peoples since the Second World War all over the world and how many cities have now become multicultural and multifaith. Whether one likes it or not, today people of different faiths rub shoulders far more than in the past. The Dalia Lama says that in order to manifest unity across humankind and across all religions, ‘followers of every religion should know something about other religions’.19 These are all reasons that come from the political and economic worlds.
Another reason is that flowing from our survival and liberation. The struggle for survival and liberation can only be worked out if all peoples co-operate. Survival can mean many things, and today we think not only of wars and conflicts, but of global warming, pollution, population explosions, reduced resources, and the ever-present threat of nuclear disasters. Liberation could be applied to all these things as well, but one should not forget the need for liberation from greed, consumerism, material things and self-centredness which perhaps underlie many of the above interpretations of ‘survival’. Full co-operation between religions is needed to confront these problems.
What then may the theological (as distinct from the pragmatic) reasons be for engaging in interreligious dialogue? One of the oft repeated reasons is the link between dialogue and the Christian church. Interreligious dialogue maybe seen as part of the Christian Church’s mission. The church is there to foster unity and love among all human beings, not only among the circle of those who call themselves Christian. The WCC says they are called because Christians are concerned with the unity of the church and the unity of humankind.20 Church unity and the unity of humankind are like two concentric circles. One can look across all nations and ask: what is it that we all have in common? It is our common humanity. Therefore as we are all children, sons and daughters of God, we need to promote friendship among everyone.
The WCC vision is that of the Church’s mission to bring about the good of all creatures and the wellbeing of the earth.21 So, in pursuing dialogue, one is fulfilling part of the Church’s mission. This is a key Roman Catholic point as well. Interreligious dialogue is seen as part of the church’s mission which is to foster unity and love among all human beings. Among other reasons, the Roman Catholic Church wants to focus on what human beings have in common and ‘to what promotes fellowship among them’ ( NA #1).
In another document the WCC pursues the idea of serving the community. Here ‘community’ goes beyond the immediate church congregation. ‘To better gain knowledge about other faiths and to gain insights through dialogue so that they can better serve the community in which they give witness, since the Christian community shares a common human heritage with other faiths.22 Dialogue is thus a fundamental part of Christian service within the community. Love of neighbour is living out one’s faith in service of community with one’s neighbour.23 The Church, in struggling against sin, suffering and injustice, is doing this to ensure the fullness of life, not just for its members but ‘for all people’.24 The pope endorses this point of building up the whole of society: ‘Freedom of religion, institutionally guaranteed and effectively respected in practice, both for individuals and communities, constitutes for all believers the necessary condition for their loyal contribution to the building up of society, in an attitude of authentic service, especially towards the most vulnerable and the very poor.’ 25
The common ground of origins, is another theological reason and links up with us all being sons and daughters of God. The pope in Turkey, repeating the Second Vatican Council, gave us this foundational orientation: ‘Following the Biblical tradition, the Council teaches that the entire human race shares a common origin and a common destiny: God, our Creator and the goal of our earthly pilgrimage. Christians and Muslims belong to the family of those who believe in the one God and who, according to their respective traditions, trace their ancestry to Abraham …’. 26 This is what NA meant by encouraging all to promote fellowship among human beings (#1). We are asked to keep peace ‘so that they may truly be sons of the Father’ (#5). This reason will be valid among the monotheistic religions but less applicable to others, where more emphasis on a common humanity would prevail. Nevertheless there is a unity among all human beings as the Dalai Lama avers when referring to a ‘seamless unity between all religion’.27
The pope also stressed that our common origins demand that we co-operate in building the future: ‘This human and spiritual unity in our origins and our destiny impels us to seek a common path as we play our part in the quest for fundamental values so characteristic of the people of our time. As men and women of religion, we are challenged by the widespread longing for justice, development, solidarity, freedom, security, peace, defence of life, protection of the environment and of the resources of the earth. This is because we too, while respecting the legitimate autonomy of temporal affairs, have a specific contribution to offer in the search for proper solutions to these pressing questions.’ 28
Another reason is the one found in Ephesians 4:14-15: to speak the truth in a spirit of love. This reason is cited in Guidelines for Dialogue (#19). We are required to speak the truth in a spirit of love. This is easier said than done in the context of interreligious dialogue for one must avoid the extremes of arrogance (having all the right answers) and indifference (the truth is completely relative). The danger is that fundamentalists will use this injunction to ‘set people right’ about what they should believe, while pluralists might give the impression that anything goes. With this problem one is raising the question of the kinds of attitudes and stances one should adopt for dialogue. There are a number of useful guidelines available on this topic, but important as it is, we cannot discuss it further here.
The commandment, ‘Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour’, is another reason taken from the Guidelines on Dialogue (#17). The argument goes as follows: one way of fulfilling the command, ‘Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour’ is to take precautions and find out the truth about your neighbour (through dialogue). In this way you will speak the truth about him/her and avoid spreading false information, or ‘false images’.29 How many Christians grew up in the past with incorrect gossip about other Christian churches? And today, what do Christians actually know about Muslims? Hindus? Jains? Jews? What are their sources of information? Correct information about different religions must be sought after, and this is best done through direct dialoguing.
Lastly there is a theological reason that needs to be added and is related to the theology of revelation and a theology of religions—two very contentious areas in Christian theology. Not all Christian churches have developed a theology of religions. Some are developing such a theology with some difficulty, others refuse even to discuss it. The question is: what is God’s plan for all these religions? Once we thought they would disappear as Christianity spread all over the world. Now we think that perhaps they are here to stay and have a role to play in God’s plan. If God speaks to us through many prophets and religions, then they will have something to teach us too. We are therefore required to follow this up and learn what might be revealed in these religions. There is an obligation to do so. At the same time, Christians believe that Christ has revealed many things to us of great importance that are not revealed in these other religions. What we might learn from these religions will complement, not contradict, what Christ has revealed.
There is another reason that seems to me to be rather an outcome of interreligious dialogue than a reason to engage in it. It is mentioned by the Victorian Council of Churches in their document, One Faith- Multifaith.30 This document actually has two statements I want to mention. The first one is that the idea of dialogue is to reinforce the consciousness of Christian identity and place denominational differences in perspective. I would disagree with this and say that this is rather an outcome than a reason to engage. The second statement is similar: ‘The wish to engage in interreligious dialogue requires Christians to establish unity of faith with each other’. This also seems to me to be capable of misinterpretation. Christians do not in fact unite first, and then engage in interreligious dialogue. I would say that while engaging in dialogue with people of other faiths, they become more aware of the shame of Christian divisions. It is a kind of bonus spin-off. It is more an outcome than pre-requisite.
Before I draw this examination of the rationale to a close, let me mention a number of pitfalls and points critical of interreligious dialogue lest one thinks that it is all easy and positive. Interreligious dialogue can be manipulated for various reasons. It can be used for grandstanding and personal promotion as mentioned above. It can also be abused and used for stirring up passions and hatred towards another religious group. Particularly in large groups, some may come along merely to abuse members of another faith. Likewise there will be disappointments if interreligious dialogue is used as an instrument to procure quick political results.
It can also be used for proselytism. This is by no means something of the past.31 There are still some who use every opportunity to try and convert others to their faith. Part of the problem here is that of how individuals interpret their ideas about mission and evangelism. Dialogue can also be artificial. If there is genuinely no disposition to listen to the other, then the dialogue will be fruitless. Indeed, as was said at the beginning, unless both sides are prepared to listen as well as speak, there is no dialogue.
Another aspect of dialogue is that it is difficult to initiate in geographical areas where the population tends to be mono-religious or mono-cultural. If there is no firsthand experience of another faith, dialogue is not impossible, but certainly more difficult. Dialogue can also collapse into a disaster if the dialogue is not properly planned. That would include the need for both sides (or all sides) to be involved in the planning. For example, if the speaker for a particular religion is not familiar with his/her own tradition, then the encounter could become counter-productive.
Dialogue needs patience and persistence. If the rationale in the first place was shaky then once the initial phase is over, the whole endeavour may be abandoned. For example, present Christian-Muslim dialogue is popular at the moment. Once this has passed will the promoters of dialogue continue with other world faiths and indigenous spiritualities?
There is finally another phenomenon which I find a bit disturbing. In pursuing interreligious dialogue, some individuals, groups, or institutions limit what they do to the so-called Abrahamic religions, i.e., Judaism, Christianity and Islam. I have no quarrel with the plain fact that they share a common background and are monotheistic. However working in the wider field of ecumenism, the principle of inclusivism should apply as Ecumenical considerations states: ‘In dialogue we strive to be inclusive, since dialogue can easily become an elitist activity…’.32 That is, one should try to unite all as far as possible, whether it is all of Christianity or all of humankind. When groups, engaged in interreligious dialogue, focus on the Abrahamic religions they are consciously or unconsciously excluding other world faiths like Hindusim and Buddhism as well as the local indigenous religion. Hence their methodology inadvertently sends the incorrect message that interreligious dialogue is for an exclusive club. This is most unfortunate, counter-productive and self-defeating.
In conclusion, we have identified that there are many different reasons, pragmatic and theological, for engaging in interreligious dialogue. These reasons are often closely related to each other and have solid support from many Christian churches. Educators and preachers could help significantly if they teased out some of these reasons with their audiences and encourage people to think not only about the pragmatic reasons but also about the theological ones. People might then think a bit more about what it is they are doing and why, in relation to interreligious dialogue, and avoid some of the pitfalls outlined above. This hopefully will lead to a greater conviction of why it is that we should be promoting interreligious dialogue. A strong conviction will be able to support commitment and action when the going gets tough and when interreligious dialogue is no longer simply the politically correct thing to do. In this way a more mature and profound approach to interreligious dialogue will be developed.
Gideon Goosen is a Sydney-based theologian and author of Bringing Churches Together: A Popular Introduction to Ecumenism, (Geneva: WCC, 2001). His latest book is Spacetime and Theology in Dialogue (Marquette University Press, 2008).
1. Cf. WCC ’s programme Inter-religious dialogue and cooperation, website: http://www.wcc-coe.org/wcc/what/interreligious/cd39-01.html
2 Cf. Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue, website: http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/interelg/index.htm A very detailed, and updated account of the Roman Catholic teaching on this topic can be found in: Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, Interreligious dialogue:the official teaching of the Catholic Church (1963-2005), (Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 2006).
3. The more structural aspects of dialogue at governmental and intergovernmental levels with international interreligous organizations and the involvement of Christians in these, is taken up in a 2002 consultation: WCC, International and Global Interreligious Initiatives: Reflections from a World Council of Churches’ Consultation. Tao Fong Shan,Hong Kong. 8-12 April, 2002, (Geneva: WCC, 2002).
4. WCC, Issues in Christian-Muslim Relations: Ecumenical Considerations. (Geneva: WCC, 1992), #1.
5. WCC, Ecumenical Considerations on Jewish-Christian Dialogue, (Geneva:WCC, 1982), #4.6.
6. A good overall treatment is given by Paul Knitter, Theologies of Religions, (New York: Orbis Books, 2002).
7. Wesley Ariarajah, Hindus and Christians: A Century of Protestant Ecumenical Thought, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 19991. Also: Knitter, Paul F., No Other Name? A Critical Survey of Christian Attitudes Towards the World Religions (London: SCM; Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1985).
8. The Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (PCID) was set up to oversee interreligious matters. In 2006, Pope Benedict XVI seemingly downgraded this council by placing it under the wing of the Pontifical Council for Culture. However in 2007 the PCID was re-instated with Cardinal Taunus as its head.
9. WCC, Guidelines on Dialogue with people of Living Faiths and Ideologies, (Geneva: WCC, 1979), #16.
10. Dalai Lama, Mein Leben und Mein Volk: Die Tragödie Tibets (Munich: Droemer-Knaur, 1962; TB Edition 1982), 189, cited in Whalen Lai & Michael von Brück. Christianity and Buddhism: A Multi-Cultural History of Their Dialogue, (New York: Orbis Books, 2001), 14.
11. Pro Dialogo Bulletin 123, 2006 (3), 327.
12. Vatican II, Nostra Aetate, The Documents of Vatican II, ed., W.Abbott, (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1966), #5.
13. Pope Benedict XVI , Meeting with the president of the Religious Affairs Directorate. Address by the holy Father, 28th November 2006, #3. Although this address talks about Christian-Muslim dialogue, much is applicable to interreligious dialogue in general.
14. NA #2.
15. WCC, Guidelines, #8.
16. WCC. Called to be church, #11.
17. WCC. 2002. Ecumenical considerations for dialogue and relations with people of other religions. (Geneva, 2002), #5.
18. Ibid., #9.
19. Dalai Lama, Mein Leben, 14.
20. WCC, Guidelines, Introduction.
21. WCC, Called to be the One Church, 9th General Assembly of the WCC, (Porto Alegre, 2006), #11.
22. WCC, Guidelines, Introduction.
23. Ibid., #18.
24. WCC, Called to be church … #11.
25. Benedict XVI, Address …, #13.
26. Ibid., #10.
27. Dalai Lama, Mein Leben, 14.
28. Benedict XVI, Address…, #10.
29. Cf. WCC, Issues in Christian-Muslim Relations: Ecumenical Considerations, (Geneva: WCC, 1992),#1; WCC, Ecumenical Considerations on Jewish-Christian Dialogue, (Geneva:WCC, 1982), #1.1.
30. Faith and Order Commission, Victorian Council of Churches,‘One Faith—Multifaith’: A theological basis for multifaith gatherings, (Melbourne: VCC, 2005).
31. Cf. WCC, Issues in Christian-Muslim Relations: Ecumenical Considerations. (Geneva: WCC, 1992), #7; WCC, Ecumenical Considerations on Jewish-Christian Dialogue, (Geneva:WCC, 1982), #4.2.
32. WCC, Ecumenical considerations… #26.