By MM Abraham
28 June, 2014
Marking a major shift in their position on religious diversity, today a number of Christian organisations are actively engaged in promoting interfaith and inter-community dialogue. They insist that God’s word cannot be limited to just one religion. This reflects a veritable Copernican revolution under the impact of a positive experience of other religions.
For Christian advocates of religious pluralism, adherents of other religions are not to be regarded as spiritually lost and in need of salvation through Christianity, but, rather, as already enjoying a saving relationship with God through their own religions if they are truly committed to them. To be sure, Christians, they stress, must be faithful to their commitment to Jesus Christ and engage in witnessing concerning their fundamental beliefs. But such witness should not have as its goal the conversion of others. This entails a radical restating of the meaning of ‘mission’ in multi-religious contexts, taking into account the integrity of the other faiths.
In this regard, a noted Indian Christian theologian, the late Stanley Samartha (d. 2001), rightly says:
Dialogue is not a concept; it is a relationship. Community is not a concept; it is people, men and women, sharing the meaning and mystery of human existence, struggling together in suffering, hope and joy.
Such ‘dialogue in community’ or a ‘dialogue of life’ takes place in markets, street corners, during festivals and holy days. It needs to be extended to humanitarian projects as an effective response to crises in society. Thus, people, their world and their problems are the starting point of dialogue.
Inter-community dialogue is inevitable because almost everywhere people are now living in religiously pluralistic societies. Such dialogue has become particularly urgent because people are under common pressures in the search for justice, peace and a hopeful future. We are faced with the common challenge to live together as human beings in close proximity to each other. Dialogue between adherents of different faiths, designed to get to the deepest levels of commitment and inspired by our common spiritual quest and concern for all of God’s creatures, is a clear human demand at this hour of human history.
In the context of dialogue with people of other faiths, which demands genuine openness on all sides, Christians are free to bear witness to the Christ or Muslims to the teachings of the Quran or Hindus to the teachings of the Gita, just as their dialogue partners of other faiths are free to witness to their respective religions. In this regard, Peter’s words to Cornelius, recorded in the Bible, are significant: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favouritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right” (Acts 10: 34-35).
God Is At Work among All People
In seeking to promote positive relationships between adherents of different faiths, the fact has to be faced that there are some people in almost every religiously-defined community who fear that dialogue with people of other faiths is a betrayal of ‘mission’, which they understand as seeking to preach their religion to others so as to inspire them to accept or convert to it. On the other hand, there are people of other faiths who suspect that dialogue is simply a new tool for such ‘mission’. There should, therefore, be an understanding of mission which neither betrays the commitment of people to their own faiths nor exploits the confidence and the reality of people of other faiths.
For a Christian, faith involves both relationship to God through Jesus Christ and a way of understanding God, man and the world. The Christian understanding and working out of dialogue will therefore be on the basis of that relationship and that understanding. The same is true for people of other faiths. In other words, people should seek to place their faith and what they see as its mission in a positive relationship to the faiths of others and to the commitment to mission which they may draw from their respective faiths.
In many Christian circles, the growing positive recognition of world religions as ways of salvation and the call to collaborate with their followers is a great shift in the approach of the Church—from conquest to dialogue. This dialogue is understood as an attitude of life and love, and as a way of mutual sharing of visions and missions of the diverse faiths.
Dialogue is a pilgrimage towards the fullness of life and truth through mutual communication, which demands a deep commitment to one’s own faith and genuine openness to that of others. Encounters with various religious paths can deepen and strengthen our faith and also pave the way for inter-community co-operation for social change.
Dialogue is thus to be undertaken within the context of God’s mission, which encompasses all the world’s religions. Such a mission requires a radical reconceptualisation of the notion of the religious ‘other’, leading not only to openness to the latter but also to our being open to the realities and possibilities of the mission of the ‘other’ to us. Hence, genuine dialogue cannot be a new tool for old forms of mission, which involve a quest for dominance, nor a dishonest means of getting into contact the ‘other’ with a view to a conversion which does not take the other partners seriously. Dialogue, understood within the context of God’s mission to all men, should stem from love and seeking the fruit of love.
Dialogue is only possible if we proceed from the belief that we are not the ‘haves’, standing over against ‘others’—spiritual ‘have nots’. We are all recipients of the same divine mercy, sharing in the same mystery. We thus approach every other faith and its adherents reverently. Dialogue can be conducted only in an attitude of humility. An inter-religious spirituality provides an appropriate platform for people of different religions to work together to bring about a new humanity. Believers in diverse faiths need to promote and accelerate the process of the emergence of such an inter-religious spirituality, developing out of the existing state of religious pluralism itself.
MM Abraham, a priest of the Mar Thoma Church, is Associate Director of the Hyderabad-based Henry Martyn Institute, a centre that seeks to promote dialogue between people of different faiths