Inter-religious Dialogue

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The term interreligious dialogue (or interfaith dialogue) refers to positive interaction between people of different faith communities, mostly following the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions. Although it is difficult to draw out the aims of the modern interreligious movement, which contains many disparate groups and individuals, certain common goals do seem to emerge. Most participants seek to respect the other’s point of view, as well as to share their own. They tolerate or defend the other’s right to exist as well as welcoming the benefits to the world rendered by the other religion(s). People involved in dialogue are rarely oriented toward change of core beliefs. There are many points around which dialogue participants can seek common ground and make common cause. One of the most difficult and perhaps most challenging points involves discussion surrounding core beliefs, which if approached incorrectly tends to divide. For this reason, much dialogue revolves around other, easier core values upon which all people of goodwill can agree.

The rise of interreligious dialogue has been made possible by the twofold processes of unprecedented global interaction in the modern age, which has provided abundant opportunity for religious communities and individuals to interact with each other, and a dawning awareness and pragmatic realism of the need to overcome religious conflict often associated with theological imperialism and colonialism. Although interreligious dialogue has been sporadically practiced in localized multi-religious areas such as India and North American cities, the movement on a global scale is rather new. Interreligious dialogue takes many forms, but is essentially a conscious attempt to build bridges of understanding, respect, harmony, and friendship among religious communities. Those involved in dialogue tend to focus on common ground rather than that which divides them to overcome stereotypes and historical grievances.

Contents

The importance of the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religion

Chicago Meeting, 1893

The origins of formal interreligious dialogue in the modern period can be traced to the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions that brought together people of different religions from the East and the West and was held as part of the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The Indian Swami Vivekananda made a particularly strong impression there. His interpretation of Hinduism influenced both people’s perceptions of that religion and of the aims and mode of interreligious dialogue for many years afterwards. Even so, voices from some religions were few in number or absent. For example: the American convert Muhammad Alexander Russell Webb spoke for Islam; and Native American and other representatives of primal faith were not present at all. Also, this event was not a parliament in the sense that it wasn’t a group of representative and elected members of different religions. It was made up of some officially authorized members of their religions, but mostly of enthusiasts who could afford and were able to be there. Although some contributors were apologists for their religion, even to the point of comparing their own religion at its best with others at their worst, in retrospect the World’s Parliament has come to be seen as the beginning of a process of more positive assessments of other religions than had previously happened, and of respectful engagement with their devotees.

Despite its limitations, the 1893 Parliament was a significant achievement. It was at a time when the European imperial venture was at its height, and its more vainglorious advocates were trumpeting abroad the triumph of Western cultural values and of Christianity. Shortly afterwards, some Christians were reading John Mott’s book The Evangelization of the World in This Generation (published in 1901). It must have seemed to many European and some North American Christians at the turn of the twentieth century that a movement to bring together people of different religions in respectful dialogue was a pointless and faithless diversion from the real business of Christianizing the planet. However, it is important not to exaggerate the differences between the aims of the Parliament and of Mott’s words and ideals, which brought into being the modern Christian ecumenical movement. Many participants in the early dialogue movement, including Vivekananda, were convinced that their take on reality was the most correct one; some were even convinced that it was the sole authentic revelation. Equally, many Christian missionaries in countries where other religions were in the majority believed in an approach based on “justice, courtesy and love.”

In fact, both the modern interreligious and ecumenical movements sprang from the globalization of the world that the imperial enterprise had helped bring about. As the world became more interconnected, people of different religions or even of different interpretations of the same religion could not easily ignore the facts of diversity but had to explain them. In the past, where communication had often been much more difficult, it was often more easy to ignore differences by the simple fact of hardly ever encountering them. However, this was not unvaryingly true. Within the same geographical area, religions could hold different and conflicting interpretations, to the point of creating separate religions. For example, in South Asia in the first millennium B.C.E., both Jain and Buddhist ways of faith grew out of a critique of Hindu interpretations of ultimate reality; and Hinduism itself was and remains more a family of faiths than a single religion. Also, war and trade could take a religion far beyond its original geographical boundaries and eventually create converts, but rarely does a religion spread "accidentally" in this way. Many or perhaps most major world religions possess a call to evangelization, ideally out of the sincere belief that the way of life will bless those who receive it. Occasionally, an empire that ruled over people of different religions flourished thanks to the involvement of these religions in their economic, political, and cultural processes. For example, la Convivencia in medieval Spain was a period when Jews and Christians flourished under Muslim rule. There are some instances where rulers took an interest in interreligious dialogue: the Emperor Akbar of North India (d. 1605) brought Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Zoroastrian, Jewish, and Christian scholars together to debate with him, but ended by founding his own self aggrandizing Din il-Ilahi (“divine faith”), out of megalomania, political calculation, or some other motive. It never included more than nineteen people, and did not survive his death.

In short, before 1893 there are only infrequent occasions in which attempts were made to share religious truth in inclusive and tolerant ways.

A brief history of interreligious dialogue since 1893

The first half of the twentieth century saw a few significant figures that were committed to interreligious harmony. The most famous was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869 – 1948), the mahatma or “great soul” of modern India. He was deeply influenced by the same inclusive interpretation of Hinduism that had inspired Vivekananda, but also by the Quaker faith of friends in Pretoria, South Africa, and by the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy’s Christian pacifism (they exchanged letters in 1909 and 1910). Even so, Gandhi was distrusted by many Muslims. In contemporary India, he has also become a divisive figure for many members of the scheduled castes or dalits, formerly known as “untouchables” or “outcastes,” whose very shadow could be claimed to pollute caste Hindus and who traditionally performed menial and degrading tasks. Although Gandhi called them harijans, “beloved of God,” this seemed condescending to many dalits, who also felt betrayed by his clash with their leader, Ambedkar (1891 – 1956), about whether they should have privileged electoral status in the last years of British India. This story is an example of how difficult it can be, in reality, to work in harmony even within a religion for the common good.

Interreligious dialogue may be difficult, but it is not impossible. Many South African Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Buddhists, and others worked together pursuing peaceful protests against the apartheid system of government in the years just before freedom in 1994. They were inspired by Gandhi, who had perfected his strategy of non-violent satyagraha while living in South Africa, and also by the activism of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (d. 1968), who involved Jews and Muslims as well as Christians in his civil rights movement in the United States.

As well as providing significant interfaith figures, the twentieth century saw the creation of various interfaith organizations. Even before the Holocaust of six million Jews under Nazi rule, some Jews and Christians were meeting together and even discussing controversial matters, such as Jesus' role within Judaism. A few Jews (such as Joseph Klausner and Martin Buber in Germany) respected Jesus as a moral teacher, even though they could not accept Christian claims for him as messiah. The London Society of Jews and Christians was founded in 1927 and is the oldest interfaith organization in the United Kingdom, where the Council of Christians and Jews came into being in 1942, during World War II. The International Council of Christians and Jews now has dialog organizations in almost 40 countries. One of the earliest broad-based interfaith organizations is the World Congress of Faiths, founded in 1936. Now, there are many national and international inter-religious organizations.

Since the 1960s, some religious institutions have taken an interest in interreligious dialogue. In particular, many Christian denominations have made statements about their attitude towards other religions. There are several reasons why Christian churches have been in the vanguard of this mostly, if cautiously, positive assessment of other religions. The appeal of Hitler to Christianity’s "teaching of contempt" for Jewish people to justify the murder of two-thirds of Europe’s Jews shook many Christians to their moral foundations. The end of empire led many Christian leaders to repent the glib assumption that their religion’s involvement in the imperial enterprise had been an unalloyed good. Furthermore, many (though not all) Christian churches have an authority structure (the papacy in Roman Catholicism, for example) that lends itself to disseminating official pronouncements that their members will take very seriously. This is not always the case elsewhere. It is difficult, for example, to define such a clearly accepted structure even in the two other major monotheistic religions of Judaism and Islam.

Within Christianity, the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, especially as stated in the document Nostra Aetate (1965), implicitly abandoned the centuries-old Roman Catholic teaching of “outside the church, no salvation.” In 1964, Pope Paul VI created a special department within the Roman Curia for relations with people of other religions, which, in 1988, became the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. Intriguingly, the Church’s official relations with the Jews remain within the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. The World Council of Churches, an umbrella organization of many Protestant and Orthodox churches, created a sub-unit, Dialogue with People of Living Faiths and Ideologies, in 1971.

Figures from other religions have also become symbols of good interreligious relations: the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibetan Buddhism is an obvious example. Other contemporary religious leaders have also promoted interreligious dialogue. The Rev. Sun Myung Moon has founded, inspired, and supported a great number of interreligious initiatives. These activities, including local, national, and international conferences, have brought together scholars and practitioners of different religions, numbering in the thousands, to discuss matters of interreligious and global concern. In 1985, Reverend Moon's International Religious Foundation (IRF) convened the largest gathering of religious leaders on American soil to date. The Assembly of the World's Religions (AWR), held in McAfee, New Jersey, gathered over 1,000 of the world's most prominent religious and spiritual leaders. The Sikh guru, Baba Virsa Singh, founded an Institute for Advanced Studies in Comparative Religion in 1990 at Gobind Sadan, a farm on the outskirts of Delhi, India, where many people from all religions make their way to seek his wisdom.

Interreligious dialogue for the new millennium

In 1993, there was a centenary meeting of the World’s Parliament of Religions, again held in Chicago. So, future historians may look to that date as another seminal moment in the history of positive interreligious relationships. If so, they should not overestimate its importance. Despite the fine works that it does, the “Parliament” still largely remains, for good and ill, an unelected group of enthusiasts. Since about 1993, there have been at least four notable trends in interreligious dialogue. The first is the continuing and developing institutionalization of interreligious dialogue. There are now national organizations that bring together members of the major world religions. The Inter Faith Network for the United Kingdom, founded in 1987, is a remarkable example.

In recent years, academic institutions have become involved in monitoring and reflecting about the demography and other characteristics of religious pluralism. This significant (and second) trend finds its best example in the United States with the Pluralism Project, initiated in 1991 at Harvard University. Its mission is “to help Americans engage with the realities of religious diversity through research, outreach, and the active dissemination of resources.”

The third trend is the “dialogue of life.” The spur to this approach is that through meeting to do things with others as well as to talk with them, people learn to appreciate them and respect their quest for life’s meaning. Some organizations bring together people across religious boundaries at conferences or for meals or in joint projects. For example, the Inter Faith Youth Core (IFYC) in Chicago gathers young people of different religions for days of service. Jews and Muslims, for example, work together and in doing so often find it difficult to demonize each other; they can learn that justice, hope, peace, love, and common humanity are not just the preserve of one group of people. The IFYC is not the only organization to do this. The International Council of Christians and Jews and many local interfaith groups have done such things for some years. Indeed, the “dialogue of life” is not only or even best illustrated by formal gatherings. Wherever people live alongside those who believe and practice different things, there is the possibility of learning from them through everyday encounters and, when friendship grows, people share each other’s religious festivals and rites of passage.

Interreligious Dialogue and Ethics

Interreligious dialogue has always privileged action (though sometimes only talking about action) and a common moral vision of the universe over sharing more theological or religiously legalistic visions of ultimate reality. In recent years, an ethical dimension to interreligious dialogue has been strongly emphasized. The Global Ethic project is the most notable example of dialogue aimed at ethics and moral action. The project became fairly widely known when 143 leaders from across the spectrum of the world’s religions signed up to it at the 1993 meeting of The Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago. The Global Ethic project condemned the parlous state of the world, for example: the looting of the planet’s resources; widespread poverty; and particularly “aggression and hatred in the name of religion.” Those who signed up to it affirmed that “there is an irrevocable, unconditional norm for all areas of life, for families and communities, for races, nations, and religions. There already exist ancient guidelines for human behavior which are found in the teachings of the religions of the world and which are the condition for a sustainable world order.” Behind this declaration was the distinguished German theologian Hans Kűng, whose followers canvassed widely for signatures at the 1993 meeting.

Kűng had written a book in 1990 called Global Responsibility (English translation: 1991) in which he argued that religions can contribute to world peace only if they reaffirm and live out their core values. He spelled out his conviction that there can be

  • No peace among the nations without peace among the religions.
  • No peace among the religions without dialogue between the religions.
  • No dialogue between the religions without investigation of the foundations of the religions.

This three-fold conviction was what he took to Chicago. He persuaded the Parliament to affirm four directives:

  • Commitment to a culture of non-violence and respect for life.
  • Commitment to a culture of solidarity and a just economic order.
  • Commitment to a culture of tolerance and a life of truthfulness.
  • Commitment to a culture of equal rights and partnership between men and women.

In the wake of the Chicago Parliament, a number of scholars and practitioners of interfaith dialogue took up the cause of the Global Ethic. Books were written, some rather learned and others more popular in tone. Kűng’s Global Ethic Foundation opened in Germany in 1995. Temple University, Philadelphia, also has a center for Global Ethics, under the guidance of Leonard Swidler. Much worthy material has been produced. It has brought politicians, economists, and many people together to talk about justice and peace. However, there are strong criticisms that can be leveled against it. For a start, it is rather elitist. Kűng got members of the 1993 Chicago meeting to sign up to what he had drafted. They validated his work, but did not contribute to it in any significant way. Arguably, it would have been a better document and commanded wider support if more people, particularly women, had participated in the process of bringing it to birth rather than simply giving it their approval with a few modest changes. It is also rather naïve. Kűng approached politicians to approve of his initiative, and some have done so. It never harms a politician’s image to be in favor of peace, when it suits him or her. Tony Blair, prime minister of the United Kingdom, gave the first annual lecture of the Global Ethic Foundation at Tubingen in 2001, on the theme of “Values and the Power of Community.” But then he went to war, against the majority opinion of the United Nations, and even of the citizens of his own country. The Global Ethic project is also surprisingly naïve about how religions (as well as politicians) operate in the real world. The four commitments mentioned above may be practiced by some religious people, but by no means all. Take for instance the “commitment to a culture of equal rights and partnership between men and women.” The rise of contemporary women’s movements in the world religions illustrates how far religions mostly are from furthering this aim. It is just as tempting for religious people to define their religions idealistically as it is for secular critics to view them gloomily at their worst. That naïveté extends to the attempt to locate the Golden Rule as the “ancient guidelines” found in all religions and as an ethical principle upon which members of all religions can agree.

The Golden Rule

It is easy to point to the capacity of religions for violence. Practitioners of interreligious dialogue have wanted to emphasize that this is only part of the story of human faiths. Religions have also had the power to transform people for good. In recent years, the most tangible attempt to stress the ethical influence of religion has centered on the claim that all religions can agree upon the Golden Rule. This “rule” is the conviction that people should treat others as they would wish to be treated.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that too much has been made of the Golden Rule in writings over the last decade. Two serious criticisms can be leveled against them. First of all, although the Golden Rule makes sense as an aspiration, it is much more problematic when it is used as a foundation for practical living or philosophical reflection. For example: should we unfailingly pardon murderers on the grounds that, if we stood in their shoes, we should ourselves wish to be pardoned? Many goodly and godly people would have problems with such a proposal, even though it is a logical application of the Golden Rule. At the very least, then, it would be helpful to specify what sort of a rule the Golden Rule actually is, rather than assuming that it is an unqualified asset to ethical living in a pluralistic world. Furthermore, it is not usually seen as the heart of religion by faithful people, but simply as the obvious starting point for a religious and humane vision of life. Take the famous story in Judaism recorded in the Talmud: Shabbat 31:

A certain heathen came to Shammai [a first century B.C.E. rabbi] and said to him, “Make me a proselyte, on condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.” Thereupon he repulsed him with the rod which was in his hand. When he went to [Rabbi] Hillel, he said to him, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor: that is the whole Torah; all the rest of it is commentary; go and learn.”

It is easy to sympathize with Shammai’s response to a person who trivializes a great religion, assuming that it can be reduced to some simple slogan, though perhaps Hillel was more sensible (and compassionate) to try and draw that trivial interlocutor into abandoning sound bytes for the joys and wisdom of paddling in the shallows of the ocean of truth. The heathen (or gentile) converted under Hillel’s wise response to his asinine question and, one hopes, responded positively to Hillel’s suggestion to him that he should learn the commentary which would give him the means of figuring out why the Golden Rule is important.

Some religious traditions have strongly emphasized the importance of holiness. Holiness indicates the process of growing into goodness and into understanding what transcendent reality desires and requires humans to do and to be. For example, the Eastern Orthodox traditions of Christianity have stressed this, calling it theiosis or divinization: enabling people to be God-bearing to others and to the whole cosmos. Surely the concept of holiness is more rewarding than locating the Golden Rule or some other thing or things as our rule of conduct. For holiness demands a process, a journey of faith, a vigilant and hopeful pilgrimage of life on which humans expect to be surprised by God’s goodness and so warmed by it as to reflect some of it in their own actions.

The question of truth

Even assuming that the Golden Rule could be developed into a more nuanced pattern of behaving well in today’s world, there would still be issues for religious people to deal with. For whilst moral behavior is an important dimension of religion, it does not exhaust its meaning. There is a tendency for religious people in the West to play down or even despise doctrine, but this is surely a passing fancy. It is important for religious people in every culture to inquire after the nature of transcendence: its attitude towards humans and the created order; and the demands that it makes. People cannot sensibly describe what is demanded of them as important, without describing the source that wills it and enables it to be lived out. Besides, the world would be a safer place if people challenged paranoid and wicked visions of God (or however ultimate reality is defined) with truer and more generous ones, rather than if they abandoned the naming and defining of God to fearful and sociopathic persons.

To be sure, there have been many attempts over the last two decades and more to offer a justification of interreligious dialogue on the grounds that all religions are paths to the same goal. The word ‘pluralism’ has come to be used not just to describe the obvious and incontrovertible fact of religious diversity but also as an ideology that this state of affairs is an excellent one, and that all religions are equally true human representations of transcendent reality. (This rather begs the question of whether they might all be equally false!) The British philosopher John Hick is associated with this development, though he drew out implications of the typology offered in a book by Alan Race, originally published in 1983. In this book, Race described most Christian views of other religions as exclusivist, denying them any truth. Some people have moved to inclusivist positions, including members of other faiths within their own Christian viewpoint as able to be saved. A few rare spirits, pointers to a more excellent and humane future, acknowledge that people are saved through following their own religious path. This is a somewhat elitist representation of reality, and hardly does justice to the range of Christianity’s historical and theological possibilities. Hick widened this threefold position to include other world religions, and brought to bear upon it an idealist philosopher’s vision of the world. Therein lies a problem, for most religious people, even Christians, do not see their faith stories adequately represented by a form of western idealism, or, indeed, by any philosophical position. Although Hick has inspired many others (mostly but not all Christians) to write either in support of or against his position, it is hard not to see this large body of literature as peripheral to the major issues, because it makes light of and occasionally even trivializes what most people believe. Indeed, the threefold classification of exclusivism, inclusivism and pluralism fails to do justice to the resources available within the world’s religious traditions to depict other faith-responses in both positive and negative ways. How people choose from their religion, and how they interpret what they choose, is as important as what is actually there.

An older trend that argues for the essential truth of all religious ways is the perennial philosophy, found in works by, for example, Aldous Huxley, Frithjof Schuon, Seyyid Hossein Nasr, Huston Smith and James Cutsinger. On this view, all of the world’s religions are expressions of a single, saving truth. Some religious expressions, however, are inauthentic and demonic, mostly because of the violence and other evils caused by their teachings. Each authentic religion is directly revealed by Ultimate Reality, each corresponding to an archetype in the divine mind. So, at the phenomenal level, religions exist as discrete realities that offer their adherents a path up the mountain. Each is fully able to provide its members with all that they need to reach God. There need be no syncretistic borrowing in order to supplement what is lacking in one’s own faith. Only at the mountaintop will all participate in the nature of God. Attractive as aspects of this philosophy are, there is an intellectual elitism about it that would seem to restrict its popularity.

If proponents of pluralism and of the perennial philosophy do not persuade large numbers of people of the rightness of their views, what other possibilities are there to explore truth issues in dialogue? In reality, both these positions close off such exploration for they have already resolved the question of truth, though not to the satisfaction of most people of faith.

It may be that next stage in interreligious dialogue is a willingness to explore the question of truth, rather than bypass it or else solve it too quickly and too glibly. It is impossible to predict where this would lead us in the next decade or so, but it is possible to suggest two necessary strands of the discussion. The first is to reckon with truth not as some static, essentialist given, but (rather like holiness) as a quest. For a Buddhist merely to describe the process of enlightenment, or for a Muslim just to parade the verbal inspiration of scripture, invites the question: so what? How do these truths act as a shining vision for people about Ultimate Reality and its (or his, or her, or their) ways in the world? How do they make people behave? How do human representations of truth provide, not assured answers but light in a dark world, guiding people towards what is more deeply true than our limited human vision can ever grasp? Jesus talked of doing (not just about believing, still less of asserting) the truth (the New Testament Gospel of John 3.21), an insight that aligns more with an understanding of truth not as facts to be learned but as insights to be uncovered and shared with others on a journey of openness, of faith.

A second strand is the recovery of the world’s mystical traditions. Many people today call themselves spiritual rather than religious. Such spirituality is often superficial, highly individualistic and self-serving, lacking any roots to sustain an enduring and challenging vision of Ultimate Reality. Yet it is easy to understand why spirituality emerges as a challenge to widespread narrow, male-dominated, rigid and formulaic interpretations of religion. The mystical traditions of the world’s religions provide a critique of such over-formalized religious belief and practice, yet are a well-winnowed and enduring route by which to establish and sustain a relationship with Ultimate Reality. Those who explore these mystical traditions from within whatever religion often feel a strong affinity for each other, claiming that they can meet in ‘the cave of the heart’ (the title of a book by the Roman Catholic Henri Le Saux, also known as Swami Abhishiktananda, d.1973). Unlike the concepts of pluralism and the perennial philosophy, the mystic paths are a well-trodden route within each religion, not a philosophy imposed upon them. That is why they could provide an authentic starting point for an exploration of the issue of truth by people of different faiths in a religiously diverse world.

Resources on Dialogue

  • Abhishiktananda, S. Hindu-Christian Meeting Point: Within the Cave of the Heart. Indian Institute of Culture, 1969.
  • Ariarajah, W. Not Without My Neighbor: Issues in Interfaith Relations. WCC, 1999.
  • Braybrooke, M. Pilgrimage of Hope: One Hundred Years of Global Interfaith Dialogue. Crossroad, 1992.
  • Carmody, D. and J. Mysticism: Holiness East and West. OUP, 1996.
  • Cracknell, K. Justice, Courtesy and Love: Theologians and Missionaries Encountering World Religions 1846-1914. Epworth, 1995.
  • Eck, D. The New Religious America: How a “Christian Country” has Become the World’s Most Religiously Diverse Nation. HarperSanFrancisco, 1992.
  • Forward, M. Interreligious Dialogue; A Short Introduction. Oneworld, 2001.
  • Hick, J. An Interpretation of Religion: Human Responses to the Transcendent, 2nd ed. Yale UP, 2005.
  • Kűng, H. Global Responsibility: In Search of a New World Ethic. Crossroad Publishing, 1991.
  • Nasr, S.H. The Essential Frithjof Schuon (Library of Perennial Philosophy). World Wisdom, 2005.
  • Race, A. Christians and Religious Pluralism: Patterns in the Christian Theology of Religions. Orbis, 1983.
  • Roychoudhury, M.L. The Din-I-Ilahi Or the Religion of Akbar. AllTimeBooks, 1997.
  • Seager, R.H. The Dawn of Religious Pluralism: Voices from the World’s Parliament of Religions 1893. Open Court, 1993.
  • Wattles, J. The Golden Rule. OUP, 1996.

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