Monday, January 21, 2008

Eleven Reasons for Dialogue with People of Other Faiths: Part 2

Part 2 of Bob Robinson's "Eleven Reasons for Dialogue with People of Other Faiths" adapted from chapters 3 and 4d in Christians Meeting Hindus: An Analysis and Theological Critique of the Hindu Christian Encounter in India (Regnum, 2004):

6. The Promotion of Religious Growth

A further reason given for dialogue is the suggestion that it can assist the spiritual development of individuals, communities and even whole religious traditions. Although one tradition learning from another is sometimes meant, usually mutual growth is expected. The theme of mutual spiritual enrichment is especially prominent in Catholic discussions of Hindu‑Christian dialogue. Religious growth can also mean the rediscovery of elements that have been neglected or even abandoned. Dialogue might also help some aspects of religious traditions to be set free from certain of the philosophical, cultural or ‘imported’ religious forms with which they have become identified. Hindu‑Christian dialogue might help some Hindus to move away from a dependence upon wholly advaitin categories of thought and might help some Indian Christians to be less dependent upon Western theological and philosophical categories. Dialogue could bring considerable hermeneutical benefits, including the reminder it might bring about the conditioned nature of all religious language.

7. Common or Complementary Religious Experience

Here the supposed ground on which the participants in dialogue meet is said to be the common experience of the divine. Among Christian advocates of dialogue, Roman Catholic writers often suggest this basis (though it is not confined to them). Sometimes the common ground is said simply to be belief in the divine, but it is usually described in more experiential terms. The imagery of depth within the human spirit recurs, sometimes as the locus of the ‘ultimate awakening’ about which both Hindus and Christians are said to be concerned ‑ a concern that lies beneath their culturally conditioned forms. The appeal to shared religious experience is, of course, frequently made by Hindus as well. One particular aspect of religious experience to which they often appeal is its complementary nature – either in the sense that the perceived complementarity is between whole religious traditions or aspects of the different traditions. Such complementarity, it is said, can even act as a corrective for each tradition.

The promotion of the essential unity of the religions is said to be an urgent necessity in a climate of inter-religious suspicion. And some Christian writers also appeal to the complementary nature of the Hindu witness to God, sometimes explained in terms of the complementarity of the unavoidably historically and culturally conditioned nature of all talk of the Absolute, and an “admission of the fragmentary and ‘incomplete’ nature of each tradition” (Klostermaier 1986: 269; see also Klostermaier 1993). Related to the appeal to a common spirituality is the advocacy of dialogue as a means of fostering or strengthening ‘spiritual and moral values’ with the clear presumption that these values are shared (or at least compatible). Discussion will return below to the highly problematical nature of all such appeals to supposedly complementary religious experience.

8. Towards an Indian Theology and Inculturated Church

Attention now turns to a cluster of reasons that offer more distinctly (Christian) theological bases for engagement in dialogue. The first of these is the question of what might be the most appropriate form to be taken by Christian belief and practice in India today. Both Catholics and Protestants have usually been anxious that the whole Church in India assumes an appropriately Indian character in its theology, liturgy and general ethos – and this has even led to prompted dialogue with Indian culture as one means of helping to identify those elements that might be critically adapted for use by the Christian community.

A related issue is the perceived need for Indian Christianity to rid itself of what are considered to be excessively Western forms of the expression of the Christian faith ‑ forms that are inappropriate and even alien when used in India. For some, at least, it seems to be important in the context of national independence that the Indian Church continues to deny any ‘colonial’ dependence upon Western ways of expressing its faith and practice (for example, Sugirtharajah 1999). There seems to be some agreement (but by no means unanimous) that Indian Christian theology and practice ought to be recognisably Indian in character. But this agreement leads to the question of how much of the understanding and wisdom of the Hindu world and lifeview(s) can be incorporated into that theology and practice to enable a more Indian church? If it is believed that Christianity is capable of incarnating itself in any culture and that Indian culture provides a number of opportunities for this, then the incarnation will be extensive – though it should also be noted that attempts at inculturation have drawn criticism ‑ especially from those who see it as the ‘Hinduisation’ of the Christian faith. (In Indian Catholic circles, liturgical adaptation in particular has generated considerable opposition as have other aspects of inculturation in that church.)

9. Dialogue as a Means of Mission

Some have seen dialogue as a means of implementing the Christian mission in general, and even evangelisation in particular. This does, of course, raises concerns for most Hindus (unhappy to be seen as the targets of Christian missionary interest) and some liberal Christian advocates of dialogue as well. But among evangelical, Pentecostal/charismatic and fundamentalist Christians in India, as elsewhere, lack of interest in intentional dialogue is usually because of a prior commitment to mission (understood in a conservative sense) that is seen to exclude the practice of dialogue.

Probably the most frequent means of attempting to reconcile mission with dialogue is to suggest that dialogue is compatible not with mission in the sense of evangelization but with some widened definition of mission. In Indian Catholic circles, for example, a new emphasis upon the Kingdom or Reign of God has led to a substantial redefining of the nature of mission and evangelization in which it now is given a comprehensive meaning, identifying it with the whole mission of the church. In this sense “evangelisation” includes any form of activity undertaken to promote and strengthen the ideal of the Kingdom of God. ... It is clear that dialogue ... is an activity that belongs to the sphere of evangelisation understood in the broad sense. (Guidelines 1989: 36)

Amaladoss also writes of the broadening of the focus of mission. The new Kingdom-centred paradigm sees God’s saving will as progressively realised in history with mission and dialogue in a convergent relationship. “Proclamation leading to conversion is seen only as one aspect of evangelisation, the other aspects being dialogue, liberation and inculturation.” (Amaladoss 1986: 62)

It seems as if the relationship between mission/evangelization and dialogue depends upon the definition of mission used. If mission is viewed as centred upon the church then dialogue (like inculturation and even the quest for liberation) may well be seen as a means of proclamation that intends to build (up) the church. In other words, the content of the Christian proclamation is the key. Dialogue may be rendered more possible and less threatening to others if its advocates emphasise what God is doing in the whole world rather than what God is doing in an individual, or the church or an individual’s religion. If mission is seen as centred upon the Kingdom rather than the church then dialogue may assume a more significant role as a means of mutual enrichment and co-operation in a diverse and pluralistic world as the church bears witness to the values of the Kingdom wherever they are found. In other words, many contemporary understandings of dialogue imply a radical revision of the traditional understanding of evangelism and mission. Needless to say, others ‑ including most Hindu commentators ‑ have found the relationship between, and even compatibility of, dialogue and mission to be highly problematical.

10. The Activity of God in Dialogue

Another substantial basis for dialogue seen from a predominantly Christian perspective is provided by what might be called the activity of God – either in the church or in the world or in both places. Even more conservative Christians will generally allow (or concede) that some measure of God’s self‑communication is found in all faiths; in personal terms this could even mean discerning such self-communication through the beliefs, practices and loyalties of a neighbour of another faith. Any belief in the active and discernible presence of God in other faiths is clearly conducive to dialogue. Some Indian Protestants have also spoken of God’s activity in actual dialogue encounters but their assessments of the degree and kind of divine activity in dialogue have tended to be far less explicit and less positive than Catholic appraisals.

Some writers claim that the activity of the Spirit beyond the boundaries of the Christian community constitutes a reason or basis for dialogue. The Indian Catholic Guidelines cites with approval a statement that, “confident in the Holy Spirit’s action which overflows the bounds of the Christian community, we wish to further dialogue with other religions” (Guidelines 1989: 32). The Christian in dialogue is said to realise the constant possibility of learning from others because the Spirit of God can speak through “brothers or sisters” of other faiths (Guidelines 1989: 45).

One justification of dialogue is, then, the activity of God – and it is interesting to note a Hindu assessment of this claim. Sharma traces “the changing theistic pattern” in the Christian missionary assessment of the religions over the centuries so that now “in a dialogue situation God is not so much with us as amongst us, or with us with a very different sense than at the beginning – he is now with us all.” (Sharma 1998: 37)

11. Dialogue as a Fruit of the Gospel

There is a final cluster of reasons which proposes commitment to dialogue because of certain qualities or attitudes implied by the Christian understanding of the Gospel. The first and probably most widely suggested of these is the love that is a witness to the love of Christ, and an expression of Christian neighbourliness. The Indian Catholic Guidelines begins its lengthy discussion of ‘Theological Perspectives’ with a definition of Christians in dialogue as people who know themselves to be the outcome of God’s love, “a sign of God’s own gift to this world.” Because of this they are to live in constant dialogue with the community; “Dialogue is the law of our being” and Christians fail in their vocation if they fail to love every single individual (Guidelines 1989: 13).

Critical comment

A number of reasons are, then, able to be given for the justification of Hindu‑Christian dialogue. These reasons are now discussed and suggestions are made about apparent strengths and weaknesses. This is done as a means of asking whether there are points of transferable learning that might motivate others (especially more conservative Christians) towards adding dialogue to their attempts to communicate with others.

The first two sets of reasons (increased understanding and common social concern) contain much that is acceptable and commendable. Dialogue undertaken for these reasons can help overcome alienation, misunderstanding and the isolation of communities – or, at the very least, the way of dialogue seems to offer a means towards a more positive cohabitation in place of the self‑contented passivity, insecure suspicion or aggressive chauvinism often found in both communities.

The appeals to the unity of humanity and a shared quest for community are also commendable - especially if one can elaborate the ground or reality on which such unity might be based. However, notions such as human unity and common humanity are open to the same criticism as the concept of the unity of religion - namely, that they impose an idealised abstraction upon a dynamic and complex reality. At the same time, increased awareness of the unity of humankind, actual or potential, has made more visible and more poignant the incongruity of religious divisions. Nonetheless, a certain balance is required between the motivation provided by the ideals of common humanity and the realisation of unity, and the acceptance of religious pluralism and diversity that is usually suggested as one of the conditions for fruitful dialogue. Perhaps the notion of harmony – which is less static and abstract and implies the continuing recognition of religious particularities (in other words, what could be called a highly differentiated unity) – may be a better basis for dialogue. But even if one or more forms of dialogue are required by the necessities of understanding and good community relations, it is difficult to formulate a wholly satisfactory theory and theology of inter-religious dialogue on such pragmatic considerations. What people think ought to be done in a given situation depends at time quite acutely upon what they believe; how or even why one ought to act is not always self-evident. Nonetheless, these first reasons (greater understanding, common social concern and the ideals of common humanity and enhanced community) do seem to have much to commend them – especially to those who might otherwise remain suspicious of any move towards dialogue.

Then there is the suggestion that a joint search for truth might also constitute an appropriate and commendable basis for dialogue. However, when the wide diversity of understandings of truth in Hinduism and Christianity is acknowledged, then questions must be raised. For example, there is the considerable problem of the determination of validating epistemological criteria (if any): how they are to be found and whether they can be elaborated in conjunction or interplay with those of the other faith. It must be noted that the quest for truth in the context of dialogue starts in quite different ways. One starting point is the assumption that neither party may have the truth. Some proponents of dialogue (Christian and otherwise) assume that mutual criticism or simply the clash of opinions inevitably leads (perhaps in some Hegelian fashion) to the disclosure of some fuller truth – to which it must be said that dialogue does not offer some privileged mode of access to the truth. There is also the question of the intended limits of dialogue as a quest (perhaps a joint quest) for truth. Ought not a place remain for dialogue as critical judgment directed towards the other?

In a somewhat forcefully written critique of liberal Christian approaches to dialogue – what he calls “an underlying scholarly orthodoxy on the goals and functions of interreligious dialogue” – Paul Griffiths argues against those even who maintain that understanding is the only legitimate goal of dialogue. Theirs, he asserts, is the evaluation that critical judgement (other than that directed against one’s own faith) is inappropriate, and that the active defence of the truth and practices of one’s own position is to be avoided. Such an approach according to Griffiths, produces a discourse that is “pallid, platitudinous and degutted.” (Griffiths 1991: xif)

But there is no compelling reason why a joint search for truth might not be commended as a worthy basis for dialogue – and to evangelicals, at least some of whom are acknowledging the demise of foundationalism and absolutist claims to knowledge and their replacement with what Miroslav Volf calls “a provisional certitude.”

The next justification of dialogue – the notion of religious growth – is also problematical. It often makes assumptions about the desirability of religious change and its facilitation by dialogue. These assumptions can imply that without dialogue such change might not or perhaps even could not take place and either or both of the Christian and Hindu traditions would remain incomplete in some way. Questions about the means of such growth might also be raised, especially if the view is accepted that the instrumental function of scripture, institutions and practices is markedly different in the two religious traditions: in Hinduism and elsewhere they are usually instrumental for the realisation of moksa and then, in most Hindu traditions, transcended in a way not usually advocated in Christianity.

The appeal to common or complementary religious values or experience is (or, arguably, should be) the single most contested reason advanced for dialogue. The supposed origin or actual content of the spiritual values or resources is usually not made clear. The usual objections to any appeal to religious experience remain: all experience is made available by means of a complex epistemology; it is, necessarily, interpreted experience and may not function so much a pointer to a common centre for the religions as a covert (even if unwitting) endorsement of any number of parochial claims and viewpoints.

Honest acknowledgement needs also to be given to the very different axes around which the Christian and Hindu traditions revolve. The notion of common faith ‑ contrasted with divergent beliefs articulated from that faith (a distinction that is maintained by many Christians and most Hindus as essential for dialogue) ‑ also raises problems, especially if this faith is seen as inaccessible to logical scrutiny (as maintained by some advocates of dialogue).

But it must also be added that the appeal to complementary experience does at least acknowledge some real (rather than superficial or imaginary) differences between the two traditions ‑ reflection on which might enable further understanding. For Hindus and Christians to ask, “why do we see things so differently?” may be the beginning of a profound spiritual journey. Without an understanding of this difference apparent similarities and complementarities may well be highly misleading and too often the claim by Hindus or Christians that certain values are ‘moral’ or ‘spiritual’ or ‘authentic’ (a favoured adjective in some Catholic circles) is regarded as self‑evident justification for assumptions about a common source for both traditions that thereby justifies dialogue. There has yet to emerge a definition of this supposed Other that is recognisably the shared centre of both traditions. And this, in turn, raises a cluster of questions about the advocacy of the shared prayer and worship that seems to be implied (or even required) by the appeal to common religious experience – although it should be noted that even conservative Christians will usually participate in (in the sense of respectful attendance at) occasions such as weddings and funerals, for example.

We come now to the cluster of reasons that offer more distinctly (Christian) theological bases for engagement in dialogue. Dialogue is an obvious and even necessary means of assisting the processes of contextualisation and inculturation. Before Paul spoke to Athens, Athens had spoken to Paul – and he had listened by means of what we could call prior ‘interior dialogue’ that clearly shaped his framing of his proclamation in Acts 17. This observation alone seems to justify – in fact, require for Biblically-guided Christians - some form of dialogue even if there are, of course, a number of problems attached to the quest for an appropriate contextualisation. For example, what has come to be called postcolonial discourse has, in its own way, pointed out that the influences of globalisation on Indian society have made difficult the quest for a supposedly authentic Indian cultural identity. As the realities of postcolonial pluralism lead to complex and hyphenated or multiple identities, so the defining of an appropriate contextualisation becomes more problematical – but that might simply make the appeal of dialogue more compelling. Having said that, this writer is only too conscious of powerful trends across the conservative Protestant spectrum in India (especially in urban settings) to admire and imitate Western, especially American styles of worship and church life.

The missional justification of dialogue remains complex and contestable – even with a widened definition of mission. Perhaps evangelization and dialogue may be seen as aspects of the mission of the church in and to the world with evangelization corresponding with the church as eschatological; dialogue with the church as pilgrim. If there is a tension between these two it might be seen as necessary and unavoidable. Perhaps no more can be said than that each is to be respected and encouraged, but without denying the validity and importance of the other. Perhaps at different times and in different contexts the need for one might be felt to outweigh but not entirely deny the other. In other words, it seems plausible to argue that mission / evangelisation and dialogue are distinct but related to one another because of the way in which each may be (differently) derived from the same broadly defined understanding of Christian mission. There may be sufficient reason for commitment to each without defining or even anticipating a resolution of the tension between the two.

References to the present, and prevenient, activity of God as the initiator and sustainer of dialogue, often as the Spirit, raise the question of the possibly arbitrary nature of such an appeal. The activity of God in the world is not in question; but the criteria by which this activity might be known ‑ especially when it is used to justify the relatively novel endeavour of inter‑faith dialogue ‑ need carefully to be delineated.

The same criticism might be offered of the notion that the fundamental Gospel principles of love and freedom lead necessarily to dialogue. These appeals to love and freedom can, however, lead advocates of dialogue in many directions. As conditions for dialogue the presence and practice of both virtues are certainly desirable. But their utility as principles, especially theological principles, in establishing bases for dialogue, is less certain. On the one hand the appeals to love and freedom, especially when supposedly approved by the Spirit, can be used to endorse a widely varying number of opinions, and with an added degree of plausibility once it is implied that these new conclusions replace older untenable positions of reactionary resistance to necessary change and growth in interreligious relations.

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