Why Engage in Interreligious Dialogue?

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Given the disconcerting state of affairs in the present history of the human race, it seems apparent that interreligious dialogue is imperative for the survival of the human species. While there are many varied reasons to support interreligious dialogue, the following are the more obvious:

Religions are Different

The most reason motivating one into intereligious dialogue is that religions are indeed different. These differences are not only perceived but are real and therefore cannot be ignored. If religions are different and if religions claim to present. Truth, then, the differences invite one to an openness to also invites one to search for this Truth which should also be found in other religions. This, of course, demands that one is first open to recognising and affirming that other religions also contain elements of the Truth. While this Truth, which is ineffable mystery, absolute and eternal, transcends all religious boundaries, it is at the same time contained in each of them. Therefore, it is only in learning about the other religions that one is closer to the approximation of this Absolute Truth. Thus, religious pluralism makes dialogue an imperative for no one person or religious tradition can rightly claim to have absolute monopoly over Truth. Put another way, unless we dialogue with others we will remain limited in our apprehensions and understandings of Truth. In the words f Max Mueller, “He who knows one knows none”.

Differences which Unite

The real differences across religions, of course, can serve either to divide or to unite the believers of the various religions. To divide is easy, as one only needs to belittle and condemn the beliefs and practices of the other. To use the differences to unite, however, is the task of the more conscientious. Such people are of the conviction that the differences across religions have a unitive rather than divisive function. This unitive function can best be explored through the process of dialogue. In fact, through dialogue, one is bound to discover that many of these differences are not so different in essence as they are in manifestation. The task of dialogue, therefore, is to facilitate the discernment of shared or common grounds, where the incommensurability can be bridged. Dialogue also helps in bridging the gap which clearly exists between the religions and the perceptions of their followers. Dialogue can also encourage religionists to appreciate substantive reasons for collaborative action and partnership. This, of course, is something new, given the many centuries of isolation, provincialism and parochialism of the various religious traditions.

Religions will Meet, Anyway

Even if interreligious dialogue is not facilitated on the formal manner, the meeting of religions is inevitable in today’s world. The globalised world is forcing the different cultures and religious traditions upon one another. Transnational migration, tourism, multinational businesses, the mass media, higher education, the internet and a host of other factors are bringing cultures closer to one another, and often even into each other’s living rooms, as in the case of the television. While these encounters with strange cultures and belief systems are happening, people are not sufficiently enquipped with the necessary ideas, concepts, and visions to help them apprehend the new phenomenon positively. Many continue to be plagued by preconceived notions, prejudices, and misinformation about the other and her/his religion. In the wake of strange people and their strange belief systems, the autonomic nervous system reacts in fear and uncertainty. Fear, insecurity, threat and hostility are perfect ingredients for fuelling knee-jerk reactions which at times can be violent. Add to it the fact that religion can very easily be politicised, interreligious violence are some of these reactions. To be sure, conflicts, riots, killings and wars have been waged and continue to be waged in the name of religion. The alternative to dialogue is, therefore, none other than death.

Suffering in the World

Even as religions continue to thrive, there is still too much suffering in the world. Ecological and human suffering are on the increase as are societal and personal suffering. Much of these sufferings need not happen if not for the oppressive actions, malevolent decisions, greed, contempt, and illwill of some. Most, if not all, religions aim at alleviating suffering. The fact that suffering continues to exist in ever greater intensities suggest that religions have not been all that successful. Through liberative praxis, each religion tries to reduce suffering while promoting integral human and cosmic development. However, the problems in the world are just too massive for any one religion to do it alone. Collaboration and pertnership are therefore essential. Working together is in a sense an imperative for the survival of the species and of the planet. Interreligious dialogue in therefore not an optional activity to be done in one’s spare time. It is integral to one’s faith and has to be a preoccupation of every religionist and be promoted by every religious system.

Emund Chia, fsc (Malaysia)

DIALOGUE ?, Resource manual for CATHOLICS IN ASIA, 2001, p.182-183.

Office of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs

Federation of Asian bishop’s conferences

Editor Edmund Chia, FSC