Monday, January 21, 2008

Eleven Reasons for Dialogue with People of Other Faiths

In previous posts I have explored the variety of reasons why Christians, particularly evangelicals, should be involved in interreligious dialogue. In my review of evangelical discussions of interreligious dialogue, particularly in the context of Evangelical-Mormon dialogue, many times evangelicals equate dialogue with evangelism, or see evangelism as the major or only appropriate goal of this form of engagement. While I believe that faith communities, including Christianity, which believe strongly in their message and want to share that with others should view evangelism as an important part of dialogue when the context is appropriate, I have also tried to argue that there are other valid reasons for the various faith communities to engage each other.

One of the helpful sources I have reflected upon is Christians Meeting Hindus: An Analysis and Theological Critique of the Hindu-Christian Encounter in India (Regnum, 2004), by Bob Robinson who teaches in the Tyndale Graduate School of Theology in New Zealand. In a recent email exchange with Dr. Robinson he sent me a copy of a document he produced titled "Eleven REasons for Dialogue with People of Other Faiths" which is adapted from chapters 3 and 4d of his book. Due to the length of this document it is reproduced in to posts with reasons 1 through 5 in this post followed by reasons 6 through 11 in the second post. This document is posted by permission of Dr. Robinson. I post it here for reflection among evangelicals and other Christians for application to the context of dialogue in the Evangelical-Mormon context.

Eleven reasons for dialogue with people of other faiths

(based on Bob Robinson, Christians Meeting Hindus, chapters 3, 4D)

Intentional dialogue

Beginning in about 1960 there was a gradually increasing trend among both Protestants and Catholics to consider formal dialogue as an additional or even preferable means of engaging or encountering people of other faiths when compared with traditional proclamation. This intentional meeting of Christians and Hindus in India (especially) over the past forty-five or so years has been justified under some eleven headings that – at least for the first seven (reasons that might be shared by both Christians and Hindus) - can be arranged in order of increasing complexity according to the presuppositions upon which they are based. These are worth describing in a little detail in order to show that advocates of the dialogical model can and do offer some principled reasons for the intentional encounter. Moreover, these advocates can also offer at least some evidence of beneficial consequences that might prove to be equally persuasive for conservative Christians of a pragmatic disposition: dialogue can be shown to produce at least some good results.

1. Understanding and the Reduction of Tension

The simplest reason for entering into dialogue is the perceived need to understand why others believe and act in the ways they do, and to offer explanations in turn. This enables misunderstandings to be removed and positive understanding to be deepened ‑ and so it is not the same either as defensive apologetic, or polemic. (In fact, it is not unlike the definition of hermeneutics as “the art of avoiding misunderstanding.”) Religiously plural societies such as India experience interreligious conflict ‑ or, at least, an exacerbation of politically, economically and caste-generated tensions by religious differences and misunderstanding. Division and opposition between religious communities often seems to be an unnecessary burden to add to a nation (or world) already and painfully divided by other issues. Interreligious understanding is especially important in situations of inter‑communal tension, actual or potential, where ignorance, social isolation and prejudice can and do breed misunderstanding, fear and alienation.

For this reason there does seem to be a continuing role for ‘Dialogue as Conflict Resolution’ (Amaladoss 1999) – that is, dialogue that, as an explanatory device, can help overcome alienation, misunderstanding and the isolation of communities. At the very least, the way of dialogue seems to offer a means towards a more positive coexistence in place of the self‑contented passivity, insecure suspicion or aggressive chauvinism often found in both communities.

2. Common Social Concern

Commitment to common social concern can also be acknowledged by Christian and Hindu advocates of dialogue as both a reason for and a basis of dialogue (for example, Guidelines 1989: 68-75; Amaladoss 1988). Such dialogue will mean that urgent human needs can be tackled together rather than separately. The importance of national harmony and integration has provided reason for dialogue (see, for example, Romus 1998).

Several consequences have followed from an emphasis upon such dialogue that arises out of mutually agreed social concerns. Those who meet in this way do so as national citizens and not simply as members of different religious groups. There seems to be widespread agreement that pressing social concerns offer an urgent incentive to a dialogue which may otherwise become both empty and unrewarding if attempts are made to confine it to discussion of religious matters alone. Whereas communalist piety might separate, common action for social justice might unite ‑ which is one reason why a joint engagement in social justice is said to be central to dialogue. Put simply: in a pluralist setting, justice is an inter-faith task (see, for example, Pattery 1994). There may also be a common women’s perspective that engages the joint concerns of women of all faiths and women of no faith. The attention and energies of young people, often alienated from formal religious participation, might also be re‑engaged by common social action.

3. Common Humanity and the Ideal of Community

Another starting point for dialogue has been the common humanity said to be shared by people of different faiths. Some Protestants have argued forcefully that common humanity, not common religion or religious experience, is the common denominator in the meeting of people of different faiths – a reason that may be of particular interest or appeal to those Christians who hesitate to pursue the inter-faith encounter because of a distaste for the seemingly inevitable interreligious disputations that so quickly arise.

The Christian appeal to a common humanity is not merely because of a pragmatic desire to justify interreligious dialogue and co-operation; theological reasons can be advanced as well. Perhaps the most common are the implications of the Biblical statements about humanity made in the image of God (Genesis 1.26a, 27a) and about the unity of humankind (Acts 17.26a). The idea of a shared and inter-dependent humanity also points to the distinctly personal basis of dialogue in which meetings are not meetings between Hinduism and Christianity or even between representatives of Hinduism and Christianity but, rather, an encounter of human beings - of individual Hindus and Christians (for example, Alphonse 1997). Dialogue is, in fact, the movement from thinking and talking about ‘them’ to thinking and talking in some way about ‘us’. In Protestant circles during the 1970s, the notion of common humanity was supplemented and for a number of writers replaced by the more concrete ideal of ‘community’, in either a world or regional sense, as the basis for inter‑faith dialogue. A number of individuals also discuss what one of them calls “the quest for community through dialogue” (Samartha 1971: 155) – and it is not unknown for some conservative Christians to acknowledge this felt need as well.

4. The Challenges of Modernity and Postmodernity

India is a pluralist society in which the forces called modernisation and secularisation have directly or indirectly challenged traditional religious loyalties of every kind. One response has, of course, been a reactive quest for a new sense of religious identity, including a reaction in negative fundamentalist, communalistic and stridently nationalistic senses. But modernisation has also facilitated the interaction of religious communities; for example, the increased knowledge of other communities that it has enabled seems often to raise questions about whether some supposed communal distinctiveness might depend more upon shared sociological or economic factors than immutable religious foundations.

Modernity is sometimes seen as a threat to religion and therefore an incentive for interreligious dialogue and co-operation. Inter‑faith partnership can be urged in order to meet the need for ‘spiritual resources’ to undergird the struggle for justice and Catholic statements often speak about dialogue in order to strengthen or promote ‘moral values’ or the ‘forces of religion.’ Both Hindus and Christians might well be found, perhaps even together, raising the possibility of a transcendent reference point for the concerns of secularised or uncertain neighbours. But most Christians find they must reject the related notion (suggested by some anxious Hindu friends) of a common religious ‘front’ against modernising and other secular forces.

A further level of complexity is provided by the advent of postmodernity whose contours in India are, of course, highly specific to the subcontinent. Perhaps because the notion of postmodernity is a western construct its usefulness in the Indian context is somewhat limited but postmodernity coheres well with the traditional Indian emphases on experiential and epistemological decenteredness, pluralism and inclusiveness. And although these characteristics are hardly amenable to conservative Christians, the general spirit of postmodern openness to the self-authenticating power of personal narrative that is highly congenial to them; Christians have personal stories of faith and coming to faith – and love telling them!

5. Understanding and the Quest for Truth

Yet another reason for dialogue is to explore the relationship of enhanced understanding to a shared quest for truth. One example is the quest to acknowledge and clarify the differences in belief and practice between Hinduism and Christianity; “an important aim of the dialogue is to find out where the parties do really differ” (Chethimattam 1965: 92; see also Guidelines 31). One variation upon the theme of understanding as a motivation for dialogue is that of self‑understanding in which partners in dialogue intentionally engage in a process of self‑understanding prior to actual conversation with others.

Sometimes ‘the truth’ that is sought in dialogue appears to mean an accumulation of knowledge and wisdom by people seeking solutions for common needs and common problems. But usually the common search for truth is described in more conventional religious language, with Christians sometimes appealing to the promise that the Spirit will lead believers into all the truth. Because of the way in which Gandhi so embodies the quest for truth his example may continue to enable a fruitful dialogue. If it is true of Gandhi that, as Lipner asserts the, “single distinguishing mark of his life and thought was a whole-hearted and passionate quest for truth, wherever it may be. He looked for truth to any recognised source, Hindu or non-Hindu” (Lipner 1983: 325), then there is potential for fruitful dialogue whenever there is engagement with this quest.

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