By Roshan Shah, New Age Islam
01 August, 2014
Name of the Book: Windows on Dialogue
Editors: Ambrogio Bongiovanni, Leonard Fernando, Gaetano Sabetta & Victor Ediwn
Publisher: ISPCK, Delhi
Price: Rs. 225/ $10/6 pounds
Dialogue between people who (claim to) follow different faiths has now become an existential necessity for the very survival of the human species. A great deal has already been written on interfaith dialogue, but the very urgency of the task requires that much more be written about it. This book is a welcome addition to the corpus of writings on the subject, bringing together a rich variety of perspectives and a wealth of insights.
Jesuit and sociologist Rudolph Heredia’s article neatly summarises the case for interfaith dialogue. Going beyond the all-too-common tendency to see interfaith dialogue as a means to enable others to understand and appreciate one’s own faith better (or even to convert to it), Heredia stresses that dialogue is—or, rather, should be—a valuable means for each dialogue partner to be spiritually enriched and to grow through encountering and learning and benefitting from other religious traditions and their adherents. Seen in this way, interfaith dialogue becomes a “mutually enriching encounter”. For us to be able to be truly transformed by this encounter, Heredia tells us, romanticizing our own religious traditions (and also refusing to recognize that they might, in part, need to be rethought or revised—a possibility that the dialogical encounter might provoke) is indefensible. Heredia also adds that for dialogue to be more than people talking past each other there must also be a realization that God or the Ultimate Reality is a mystery that is far beyond human comprehension and that, therefore, no single religion or other such worldview can contain or represent Him/Her/It in His/Her/Its totality.
Heredia pleads for religionists to move beyond mere tolerance of religious diversity to actually celebrating religious pluralism. Passive tolerance can often mean simple indifference to the religious ‘other’. A higher level of tolerance, Heredia says, is love and acceptance of people of other faiths. At this stage, there is a growing recognition that each of our religious truth-claims is necessarily partial and limited and needs to be complemented by the equally partial truth-claims of other faiths. But even here, the ‘other’ remains the ‘other’. However, at the highest—mystical or spiritual—level of tolerance that Heredia talks about—the ‘other’ and the ‘self’ cease to exist in contradistinction to each other and together merge into the One. This is the level reached by mystics in all religious traditions, for whom different religions as such no longer exist. Although he recognises that to expect entire societies to reach this level of spiritual realisation may not be practical, Heredia holds it out as an ideal for individuals to strive to work towards.
Michael Amaladoss, another Indian Jesuit, reflects on positive shifts in the Catholic Church’s position on other faiths—from its insistence on Catholicism as the only way for salvation to recognition of the salvific worth of other faiths. He quotes from official Catholic documents to highlight this welcome development, showing how the Catholic hierarchy now officially recognizes, accepts and respects the spiritual treasures of other religions, including in their scriptures, worship forms and symbols, and acknowledges that God can draw people to Him through them. This indicates a sea-change in Catholic understandings of ‘mission’—from conversion of non-Christians to Christianity to working together with people of other faiths as fellow pilgrims for jointly building the ‘Kingdom of God’.
In her article, Bettina Baumer, an Austrian scholar of Christian background who has spent almost half a century based in Varanasi studying Indian forms of spirituality, indicates that while dialogue at the theological level is not unimportant, it is dialogue at the mystical or spiritual level that holds the greatest promise for mutual enrichment and for building bridges between votaries of different religious traditions. She cites Kabir and the Kashmiri woman mystic Lal Ded as two (among several) Indian spiritual masters who, through their deep spiritual experiences and realization, transcended the apparent differences between various religions, thus becoming icons of trans-religious ecumenism. This sort dialogue at the spiritual level, Baumer writes, goes far beyond institutionalized religion and theology, touching a level where spiritual experiences meet, no matter from which religious tradition they may have started off from.
Baumer also suggests that theologians of different religions can re-read their respective scriptures in order to understand the religious ‘other’ in more positive and accepting ways than hitherto. In this regard, she rightly remarks, “It is by searching in our scriptures for traces of openness, tolerance and appreciation of ‘other’ traditions and their followers that we can overcome fundamentalism, the greatest enemy of inter-religious understanding.” Such rethinking of how we understand the religious ‘other’ in ‘our own’ religious traditions is an absolute must for interfaith dialogue efforts to be at all meaningful.
Jesuit G. Gispert Sauch’s paper provides a historical overview of Hindu-Christian dialogue in India. He recognizes that many of his fellow Christians have been dismissive of other faiths. He appeals to them to make repent and amends for this long tradition of hatred and scorn and to recognize the great spiritual worth of other religions, including Hinduism. In this regard, he advocates inclusive Christian theologies of religious pluralism and pleads for the Indian Church to shed its Western trappings.
Several other papers included in this volume do not deal specifically with the issue of interfaith dialogue as such but touch upon issues related to inter-community relations. JPS Oberoi’s presentation highlights the importance of the Divine Name in many religious traditions, indicating that this could be an important basis for trans-religious unity. Ambrogio Bongiovanni’s paper deals with challenges to Christian theology posed by contemporary European society: a case here of the need for dialogue not so much between different religions as between Religion as such and a society where religion is no longer taken seriously by many. Gurdrun Lowner’s paper on Ambedkar’s conversion to Buddhism reflects on key aspects of Ambedkarite Buddhism—in a sense a dialogue with, and revolt against, Brahminism.
Jesuit scholar John Mundu’s paper reflects on aspects of the spiritual traditions of the Adivasis or ‘tribal’ people of Chhotanagpur in eastern India. He indicates that given the phenomenon of widespread dispossession of many of these Adivasis from their lands and displacement in the name of ‘development’, “any genuine inter-religious dialogue from the subaltern Adivasi perspective demands that the starting point and the basis of it must necessarily be the existential material base” of land and nature. Such dialogue, he helpfully informs us, “needs to be guided by the goal of restoration of the destroyed material base and the dehumanized face of the Adivasi people”.
Jesuit scholar Victor Edwin’s paper explores widespread negative perceptions that many Christian and Muslims have for each other, showing how these are conditioned by a range of factors, including theology, politics and history. He highlights that such differences have to be recognized and handled with care in any effort to promote Christian-Muslim dialogue.
This book is a welcome addition to the growing, albeit still limited, corpus of writings on interfaith dialogue from a largely Indian perspective. Given the importance of the subject that it deals with, one wishes it could be abridged and made available in various Indian languages. That would help promote greater awareness of the interfaith dialogue imperative, going beyond the restricted English-speaking readership that the vast majority of books on the subject presently caters to.