THE RATIONALE BEHIND INTERRELIGIOUS DIALOGUE

Auteur: 
Giorgio Spagnol
Date de publication: 
28/3/2018

THE RATIONALE BEHIND INTERRELIGIOUS DIALOGUE

Foreword

Interreligous or interfaith dialogue refers to cooperative, constructive, and positive interaction between people of different religious traditions and faiths in order to promote understanding and cooperation.

Throughout the world there are local, regional, national and international interfaith initiatives; many are formally or informally linked and constitute larger networks or federations.

Interfaith dialogue forms a major role in the study of religion, peacemaking and peacebuilding.

Interfaith dialogue and action have occurred over many centuries: in the 16th century, the Emperor Akbar encouraged tolerance in Mughal India, a nation with people of various faith backgrounds, including Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, Christianity and Buddhism.

More recently, in 2012, the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID) opened in Vienna, Austria. Its prime purpose is to empower the active work in the field of dialogue, social activism and conflict resolution while promoting acceptance of other cultures, moderation and tolerance.

Interfaith work expanded exponentially around the globe in the 1990s and 2000s with the formation of interfaith and multicultural efforts. Unfortunately, religious literacy is dangerously low in the world, even among the faithful, and religious intolerance is still a concern that threatens to undermine the hard work of devoted activists over the decades.

Historical background

The word dialogue is derived from the Greek “dia-logos” (literally “a word in-between”) which has the general meaning of “conversation” between two or more parties. The term has been also often used to indicate a specific literary genre, “the dialogue”, such as the famous “Dialogues of Plato” (427-347 BCE).

The world has always needed dialogue, but after the 1989 “Fall of the Wall,” and even more after 9/11, the world increasingly realizes that it badly needs dialogue. At the heart of dialogue is inter-religious dialogue, because religion is the most comprehensive of all the human “disciplines”. Until the slow emergence of interreligious dialogue out of Modernity, out of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment of the West, religion was also the most absolutist, exclusive of all the disciplines. Thus, dialogue is a dagger pointed at the heart of absolutist religion and ideology.

The “public” launching of modern interreligious dialogue can be dated back to the 1893 Parliament of the World ’ s Religions in Chicago. It was by far the most prominent gathering at the Columbian World Exhibition celebrating the 400th anniversary of Columbus ’ s discovery of America. Well-known religious leaders: Hindu, Theravada Buddhist, Zen Buddhist, Confucian, Christians, Jews, and Muslims participated in the initiative.

As of today the Parliament of the World's Religions brings together representatives of diverse faith traditions for dialogue around ethical and theological questions as they relate to global policy challenges, including war, poverty, and threats to the environment. While the first 1893 Chicago Parliament initiated the now-thriving interreligious dialogue movement., the second Chicago Parliament convened in 1993 as a centennial celebration of the first: parliaments are now held approximately every five years.

Interreligious dialogue

Along with politics, poverty and culture, religion is often cited as a source of conflict throughout the world. However, the last 100 years reveal a growing interfaith movement worldwide promoting peaceful and productive interactions between religious traditions.

Interfaith dialogue is not just words or talk. It includes human interaction and relationships. It can take place between individuals and communities and on many levels. For example, between neighbours, in schools and in places of work: it can take place in both formal and informal settings. 

Interfaith dialogue is a must today and the best way to establish it is forgetting the past, ignoring polemical arguments, and giving precedence to common points, which far outnumber polemical ones.

Interreligious and intercultural dialogue cannot be reduced to an optional extra. It is, in fact, a vital necessity, on which in large measure the future depends.

There is the the urgent need to address the polarisation fuelled by wars, persecution, injustices and by individuals and groups stirring up religious divisions to achieve political or material gain. Dialogue between people belonging to different faiths is therefore needed now more than ever before to address the issues causing tension and division.

Key to this is the promotion of respect and understanding. Members of different faiths need to come to know each other personally. Local interfaith contact, cooperation and interaction are of great importance as they make a major contribution in helping to create an integrated and cohesive community at ease with diversity and secure in a sense of common purpose.

The dialogue should first take place on academic or official levels between experts, theologians and religious leaders. This kind of dialogue helps to clarify issues, to create greater understanding and remove prejudices.

The second step is the dialogue of religious experience, involving interfaith prayer and also occasions when spirituality and religious texts are studied by members of different faiths (this kind of dialogue also requires a level of expertise).

The third and last step will take place in the ordinary passage of everyday life, through the contact with neighbours, during work or in the street.

What not to do

Dialogue has become in many instances of the contemporary religious rhetoric an overused word, almost a fashion, whose sense is mostly taken for granted. No meeting, religious and not, takes place in our present age of globalization in which the term dialogue, under its different colours, ecumenical, interreligious, cultural etc., does not enter as an unavoidable and almost due cliché for our taste. That is why it is worthwhile to stress its true and thorough dimensions: if taken seriously, dialogue will push to commit in earnestness and awareness, going beyond fruitless superficial meetings in which dialogue can become an empty, overused cliché.

At the end of the dialogue, in fact, there could be a tendency to manufacture consensus, whether it exists or not, or to be satisfied with mouthing a few noble, often-repeated sentiments. Thus, people could affirm the importance of mutual understanding, tolerance and dialogue, while asserting that despite differences, all traditions preach love of humankind and service to humanity. Nothing is wrong with these sentiments, of course, in conceptual terms, but if people do not dig beneath the surface and focus on substance rather than rhetoric, such dialogue means very little.

Another obstacle to dialogue is self-sufficiency. This is the belief that people of one religion have nothing to learn from or offer to other religions. However, almost all scriptures and traditions call to dialogue and to help fellow human beings. This common purpose should lead to cooperate with each other to establish justice and peace.

There is greater interest today in interreligious dialogue because there is greater awareness of the ways in which religion has propelled conflict in the past, and there is greater interest in how to engage religious leaders and religious communities and organisations in efforts towards promoting peace. Often in the past the religious dimension of conflicts was ignored in efforts towards conflict resolution, and that meant that those religious actors and organisations who were potential partners for peace were ignored. There is greater recognition of this now, after the identity-based conflicts during the end of the last century, in which religious nationalism sometimes played a deplorable role.

Peacemaking and peacebuilding

There is the need of a a dialogue connected to real life, one that will make people aware of the benefits and opportunities inherent in genuine peace. We need peacemaking – the work of the politicians, diplomats and lawyers – that results in peace treaties, what some people call “pieces of paper.” At the same time, we urgently need peacebuilding – the work of rabbis, imams, priests, educators, psychologists, social workers, and more – to bring people to encounter one another to act for peace, not just to talk about it.

One of the mechanisms of interreligious dialogue can be transforming cultural violence into cultural peace. Through peacebuilding it is possible to resort to adequate conflict resolution tools: this approach focuses on building and repairing relationships as well as the cause of conflict.

Peacebuilding is a complex and dynamic process of changing the relationship, perception, attitude and interests that are responsible for violence and conflicts. Peacebuilding addresses the causes of the conflict through economic and social justice provisions, reforming the political structures of governance, strengthening the rule of law. It also provides some strategies and tactics to prevent a conflict, terminates it or resolve it.

An important aspect of peacebuilding is to change the attitude and the behaviour through rebuilding trust by clarifying misunderstandings, removing negative perceptions and stereotypes, and transforming enemy images. When religious images, texts, and symbols are used to plant the seeds of mistrust and suspicion between groups through demonization and dehumanization, only the same religious tradition can provide the antidote.

Each religious tradition holds a variety of moral and spiritual resources that can facilitate rebuilding trust, transform perceptions, and inspire a sense of engagement and commitment to the peacebuilding process. Religious rituals, values, and principles can thus facilitate healing and trauma management. Another most effective and useful tool is the use of educational initiatives or training programs aiming at breaking down stereotypes through lectures and panels. Dialogue may also include joint concerts, art exhibitions, or other performances such as plays or dances.

The role of women

The Pope said in a speech addressed to the participants of the plenary session of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue: “Many women are well prepared to face interreligious dialogues at the highest levels. Women can also be fully integrated in exchanges at the level of religious experience as well as at theological level, an area where today more than ever it is necessary for women to be present”.

This means that the contribution of women must not be limited to feminine issues or encounters only among women, but there must be a more incisive female presence in society and in the field of education. Whether or not they are mothers, women are often the only ones who accompany others, especially those who are the weakest in the family and in society, victims of conflicts, and those who must face everyday challenges.

Women are engaged, often more than men, at the level of dialogue of life in the interreligious sphere, and in this way contribute to a better understanding of the typical challenges of multicultural life.

Women, possessing specific characteristics, can offer an important input in dialogue with their capacity for listening, acceptance, and opening up generously to others.

The growing presence of women in social, economic and political life at local, national and international levels, and in the ecclesiastic context, is therefore a beneficial process. Women have the full right to be actively involved in all areas, and their right must be affirmed and protect also by legal means where necessary.

Considerations

For millennia religion was at the very heart of all human societies, but with the Enlightenment religion abandoned civil society; it came back in the twentieth century both in very destructive ways (“9/11,” Israel, Sri Lanka, Northern Ireland, Kashmir, Sudan . . . ), but also in constructive ways (the peace movement, reconciliation movements, as in South Africa, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and especially interreligious dialogue).

The twenty-first century interreligious dialogue is no longer confined to the reservation of theological/religious reflection and cultic activity; it is moving ever more broadly and deeply and bringing religion back into all the opinion-shaping institutions of society: business, education, politics, the arts. Thus interreligious dialogue is now spreading in all the societal structures of the globe, moving humanity in the direction of a Global Dialogical Civilization.

Dialogue, in all its forms, involves a certain amount of patience and humility. Differences exist, but a common humanity is shared. It will take time to build up relationships, to gain understanding, and to come to trust one another. Dialogue should begin by focusing on things we have in common and on practical things we can do together . There are, anyway, obstacles that prevent or make dialogue difficult: these need to be acknowledged and challenged.

Without doubt, history is a major factor in shaping the way different faiths view each other. The world shared history has been marked by a variety of experiences, ranging from peaceful coexistence and cooperation to mutual vilification and armed conflict. It is a fact that there have been atrocities and injustices between people of different faiths but history is something we should learn from but not live in.

Conclusions

By informing political policy and international relations, religion is an important dimension that needs to be engaged. There are plenty of resources within the religious realm to promote peace, good governance and human rights around the world. When there are divisions between religious communities and there are not avenues for engagement between them, this exacerbates distrust that can lead to violence, and so there is a need for creating relationships between communities as a way to prevent violence from occurring again.

Interreligious dialogue, once it's conceived by a group of religious leaders, is a major task. It is a systematic approach to thorough dialogue, to a point where individuals are asked to think about their core values; what it means to be who they are, and how they relate to other people. So the dialogue might start as a conversation, but when it comes to a particular theme that affects conflict-stricken communities around the world, it is very structured, very systematic and very real in saving people's lives.

There are many ways through which approach interfaith dialogue, but it is essential that the goals be set out and the methodology be agreed upon before you embark on it.

The word “dialogue” is active in many realms: intercultural, interdisciplinary, interpersonal, therapeutic, civil society, community dispute management, conflict resolution, etc. Most of these realms engage similar mechanisms of deepening understanding and facilitating more personal appreciation of “the other.” Interfaith/religious dialogue concerns religion because religion has been identified as a useful bridge by which to connect: what is essential in this respect is that the participants engaging in dialogue lay aside attempts to missionize.

The power of religion can be used as a major force of unification among divergent factions, and hence it can play a key role in the promotion of global peace and reconciliation, by bringing varying groups together in order to establish and maintain constructive channels of communication and sustainable collaboration.

Interreligious dialogue plays therefore a vital role in the field of Cultural Diplomacy, as it can advance world peace by uniting faiths and by fostering reciprocal understanding, acceptance and tolerance amongst disparate religious communities. Interreligious dialogue can thus break down walls of division and the barriers that stand at the centre of numerous wars, with the objective of achieving peace.

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