religion
Social Issues,  Thought-provoking

It’s time to talk: the urgency of inter-religious dialogue

Joseph Evans says different religions need to engage in hard talking and hard loving for the whole world’s good.

I heard of a wedding once at which the best man stood up to make his speech. He said his mother-in-law had insisted that in the address he should not mention sex, politics or religion. Whereupon he tore up his speech and threw it up in the air with a flurry, announcing loudly that there was nothing else worth talking about!

While that might be going a bit far, it did occur to me – as a Catholic priest and so someone used to preaching to my co-religionists – that it is becoming ever harder in our society to talk about religion to people outside my Christian group. Yet rarely in human history has the need for interfaith dialogue and engagement been more clamant. 

Of course, as Western society becomes ever less religious, the biggest need might be dialogue between faith and disbelief. For example, results from the 2021 census in Australia show that over 46% of its citizens did not state a religious affiliation, a 6.4% increase from the 2016 census. That’s a big rise for only five years. Recent precedents for dialogue between believers and non-believers, however, have not been positive. With the rise of radical atheists like Richard Dawkins, it has often become one big shouting match, with believers responding in kind.

I hope to write a separate article on this latter form of dialogue, but here at least I want to offer a few possible golden rules which might help people of different faiths engage with each other. As we consider the rise of religious nationalism and bigotry in numerous countries throughout the world – India, Afghanistan and Myanmar jump quickly to mind – we urgently need some guiding principles to help religions engage sensibly with each other.

First of all, and seeking rhetorical effect, I would like to suggest that such dialogue involves being hard, not soft. To begin with, it needs hard thinking: woolly thought and loose intellectual processes do not serve the cause of religious dialogue. Ideas like “It does not matter what you believe” or “all religions are basically the same” do not promote understanding because such ideas are so patently false. Religion has power for good or evil and it’s naive not to be aware of this, as I explained in an earlier Adamah Media article.

 

Examples from history abound to show clearly that what people believe matters very much indeed: it matters a lot whether you love and forgive your enemies or feel an obligation to wipe them out.

 

And anyone with an ounce of sense realises that all beliefs are obviously not the same. Indeed, they are often completely contradictory. When rigorous standards of thought and logic are demanded in every other sphere of knowledge, why should they be abandoned when it comes to thinking about religion? Let’s think hard and straight, not abandon thought.

With hard thinking comes the need for hard study. So much of religious dialogue is conducted in ignorance, with very little knowledge about the doctrines of other religions and even – alas, frequently – very little idea about those of one’s own. This leads to crass syncretism and the betrayal of both religions involved in the exchange. Religious dialogue without study and real knowledge is the sharing of ignorance, not truth.

Then comes hard prayer. As Pope Benedict XVI said a few years back in a meeting with leaders of other religions during his September 2010 visit to Britain, we need ‘to realise more and more that the initiative lies not with us, but with the Lord: it is not so much we who are seeking him, but rather he who is seeking us’. 

Praying with each other is problematic even among followers of the three Abrahamic religions. And no monotheist would feel comfortable praying to one of the many Hindu divinities considering them either human inventions, perhaps demonic or at best very confused representations of the unique Deity. But we can certainly pray for our brothers and sisters of other faiths and implore the divine Lord to open our hearts to greater unity and to each other.

Then comes hard loving. Dialogue with other believers requires overcoming prejudices and cultural barriers and appreciating the dignity of the other person, whatever his or her creed. It also requires the positive effort to value so many elements of truth and goodness in that person’s belief. Who cannot fail to be touched by the warmth of welcome and hospitality which is so much a part of Islamic civilisation?

 

Religious dialogue requires loving and letting oneself be loved.

Nor should dialogue between religions dodge hard issues. By this I mean not only complex theological questions but also practical problems and injustices which can occur on both sides. It is a sad fact that in some countries religious freedom is not respected and this cannot simply be ignored. The extreme anti-blasphemy laws in Pakistan are a case in point. 

Past grievances also need to be addressed to seek present healing. Nor is it just a question of Christians expressing our concerns to other religions as if we had no need to put our own house in order. Muslims understandably ask how Europe has become so decadent and to what extent this is a reflection on the Christian faith which forged the continent. The effort to respond to this concern could lead Christians to constructive consideration of our faith’s continuing role in Western society.

Let it be clearly said, however, that there can be no room for hard language and even less for hard hearts.

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But what about the really difficult issues … like, which of the faiths is true? There is no such thing as objective truth, it is claimed, just ‘your truth’ and ‘my truth’. But is this helpful? Is it even logically consistent? While it is correct that different issues can be seen from different angles and there certainly are different sides to any one truth, the abandonment of truth does not serve the cause of religious dialogue or any cause at all. 

Abandoning a sense of objective truth and morality in the sphere of politics leaves us open to exploitation by lobbies and those in power: if there is no fixed truth, then the tyrant decides what is true, with the consequent oppression of his people. 

 

When it comes to religious questions, the claim that everything is true – apart from offending common sense – ultimately means that nothing is true, as nothing can be affirmed with certainty, it is all a matter of opinion. 

 

If everything anyone believes is considered of equal value, logic breaks down because religious doctrines so often flatly contradict each other. If we experience error and delusion every day of our lives, does that same falsehood and insanity suddenly become true if you give it the title of ‘religion’? What if the Flat Earth Society declared itself a religion? Would its claims then become true? When all is said and done, true faith is not subjective. It refers to a given – a revealed – truth.

Religious dialogue depends on a sense of objective truth, that truth is possible. Even if ‘faith claims’– i.e. the claims to truth which most religions necessarily and licitly make – contradict each other (Christians believe that Jesus is fully God; Muslims most certainly do not), then at least we can speak on the basis of a shared notion of truth. This notion brings with it, of course, the possibility – or the reality – of error. One of us is mistaken. The mistake may be fundamental or a question of nuance. We can handle that because we accept that truth is possible. Now let’s seek it together.

The reality of these faith claims necessarily requires jolting the sensibility of others. When a Muslim affirms that Jesus Christ is not God, I, as a Christian, feel a jolt, even if he then tries to water down his statement by saying how much he and Islam respect Jesus. It’s like trying to say one has great respect for Mozart while at the same time denying that he composed music. You’re missing something fundamental about the man! I would imagine Muslims and Jews would feel an equal jolt when they hear Christians proclaim that Jesus is divine. The very notion offends their profoundest convictions. 

Such jolts are necessary and even salutary. I would think less of a Muslim who tried to water down, out of a relativistic sense of politeness, Islam’s conviction that Mohammed is God’s greatest prophet and that Jesus, not divine, is secondary to him. 

Obviously we should not proclaim our beliefs against others. Aggressively affirming them is not helpful but if one considers one has the truth one should state it clearly – though politely – without fear of offending. Nor should the other take offence. Receiving jolts is good, it shakes us to thought and action, and the ability to take them is part of mature rationality. 

The suppression of difference and the freedom to express it, in the name of either political correctness or religious fundamentalism, is harmful to social debate and assumes people are too childish to cope with the exchange of ideas and values.

 

For example, taking offence at a crucifix on a public wall or a veil worn by another is not an expression of freedom but of immaturity.

 

Likewise, anti-conversion laws only suggest that those who passed them consider their religion – or their people – too weak to deal with arguments against it. If a religion can’t deal with challenges, how could it be true?

When people are well informed, inter-religious dialogue can lead to new insights on both sides of the exchange. Going back to our Hindu deities: without the slightest concession to polytheism or obliging Hindus to renounce what is most noble in their religion, deeper dialogue could help Hindus understand better how unity is a necessary aspect of divinity and Christians could discern a genuine search for God’s divine mystery in some forms of polytheistic cult, without naively taking for granted this is always the case. Some depictions of fertility goddesses, for example, might express more man’s lust than a spiritual quest!

Or in discussions about Jesus and Mohammed, Christians could help their Muslim brothers perceive the many ways divine power and life bursts through into the created order and that God lowering himself to take on our humanity is not a lessening of his transcendence but a manifestation of it. 

Likewise, a proper understanding of the figure of Mohammed would be greatly helped by a better understanding of the nature of prophetism and how God speaks through men in contingent historical circumstances, benefitting too from the insights of Muslim scholars on this question. 

Having said this, prudential reasons might recommend starting such dialogue in a less full-frontal manner than by going straight to the key differences which divide religions. It is instructive that a major Catholic-Muslim meeting in November 2008 – in the wake of the Regensburg controversy which saw Muslims take offence at comments made by Pope Benedict XVI during a visit to the German city – chose to focus on the relatively gentle topic of love of God and love of neighbour and how this is seen in the two communities. 

With prudence, of course, goes patience. Like good wine, understanding between religions matures over the years, with a determination to overcome all setbacks along the way. If you believe in God, you must believe in the action of God. He can change hearts, ours too, if we pray to him. The impatient imposition of a doctrine or religious opinion shows in fact a lack of faith, as if you must do yourself what you don’t trust God to bring about. 

 

Inter-religious dialogue that is truly rational and respectful necessarily leads us to reflect on our own faith, and also to discover what is imperfect in our practice of it.

 

An important point that the then Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) made in his outstanding work Truth and Tolerance is that all religions need to strive to attain what is most pure and overcome what is defective in themselves. Every creed is threatened by laxness or fanaticism, heresy and divisions, false myths or scepticism, and should be in a constant state of reform to maintain its great ideals. 

There are degenerate forms of religion: some manifestations of Catholicism, for example, can tend to superstition; Protestantism can tend either to narrow-minded rigidity or to liberal disbelief; Islam can tend to fanaticism and a failure to value freedom. People engaged in inter-religious dialogue should also seek to be catalysts in encouraging their own co-religionists to seek this reform. If each religion really strove to reform itself, understanding between them would be so much easier to achieve.

Sometimes faith schools are presented as an obstacle to inter-religious dialogue on the grounds that by locking their students into one belief system they close them to others (and – perhaps the real concern – to a secularist one). Surely, the arguments go, young people should be educated in all creeds, presented on an equal basis. 

But experience shows that this merely leads to indifference and ignorance. Religion becomes sociology.

 

A man or woman on shifting sand cannot support any one. If we are to reach out to others with a firm and loving embrace, we need to stand on firm ground ourselves.

 

From the experience of our own profound faith in God we can better appreciate the beliefs of others. Dialogue of any form begins with a clear sense of one’s own identity. 

My own experience as a chaplain in two Catholic student residences, but which happily accept non-Catholics, very much bears this out. The halls are manifestly Catholic in their ethos, with daily Mass and Rosary and other formative activities for those who want, but nothing is obligatory and some students may never set foot in our house chapel. Young people of other creeds learn to live with, respect and love Catholics, and we learn to love and respect them. From our lived faith we all learn to value others. 

What I have just described could be called a ‘dialogue of life’. For most of us this is in fact the principal form of inter-religious dialogue we can engage in. Few people have sufficient knowledge to discuss theological differences between religions but we can all treat our Buddhist or Hindu neighbour lovingly or welcome the needy immigrant, whatever his or her creed.

This should be complemented by the ‘dialogue of action’, the practical ‘side-by-side’ dimension of our cooperation, which complements the ‘face to face’ aspect of our continuing dialogue. Here, the opportunities for joint action are endless: promoting authentic development, working together for peace, promoting justice, care of the environment, defending human life at every stage, or simply fighting to defend the role of faith in society, are just a few areas of common concern which come to mind.

We can speak together to the world about virtuous living, about the true nature of family life based on the marriage between a man and a woman, we can offer an explanation about the meaning of life which science could never offer, we can remind the world about the need for moral and spiritual conversion.

 

But above all we can work united for the poor and needy, because the more we love together, the more we will come to love each other.

 

So what now? We need to ask ourselves what we want from interfaith dialogue. I would suggest that we should not want too much. 

Dialogue should lead all believers to deepen and purify their beliefs, giving them a stronger rational basis, by discussing them and contrasting them with the beliefs of others. We can certainly learn from the devotion and religious sense we see in other believers. Then, such dialogue should help us to live together peaceably, to overcome misunderstandings and prejudice, to love each other more, and to work together to build a society in which faith is valued and allowed to make its contribution to the common good. Beyond this is to ask more from such dialogue than it can reasonably give. 

The dangers of engaging in religious dialogue are many: for example confusion, syncretism and relativism. We Christians, for instance, should be very careful not to water down our essential proclamation that Jesus is God made man and humanity’s unique Saviour. Christ’s divinity is the fundamental truth, not just one belief among others. 

But the dangers of not engaging in such dialogue are potentially far greater. 

Without this dialogue some religions, deprived of the oxygen of intellectual debate and its stress on the role of reason, fall ever more into fundamentalism. In the West religions retreat into ghettos and, divided, are conquered; faith is pushed ever more into a corner; society becomes more secular, and – reacting against this – religious extremism grows, further damaging the voice and role of religious belief in the modern world.

The need for dialogue is evident. The need for action is great. So at the risk of offending the mother-in-law at the wedding, I’d say religion is something we need to discuss more in polite society …. for all our benefit!

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Fr Joseph Evans is a Catholic priest and member of the Opus Dei prelature. He has been a journalist and youth worker, and is currently a university chaplain in Manchester. He is co-founder and Editorial Director of Adamah, which he sees as bringing together some of his great passions: good writing, intelligent and honest discussion, and helping young people achieve their full potential.

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