Friday, January 29, 2016

The Relevance of the Inter-religious Dialogue

1.    Is religion a source of conflict? If we look at the mess we are in—globally and, for the Filipinos, the Mindanao—we see that religion has not really been the source of conflicts. It is true, however, that religion has been instrumental in promoting the mess. Many have used religion to exacerbate contemporary social and global problems.
2.    We see in Pope John Paul II’s Redemptoris missio that inter-religious dialogue can help in overcoming prejudices and discrimination among people of different religious traditions. Although we feel frustrated today in front of the mess we are in, we still hope that this dialogue still has relevance.
3.    Vatican II has taken a big step in the direction of dialogue with other religions. It came out with a document, Nostra aetate. That document tries to see how we can situate ourselves in front of the other religious traditions. The tone is respectful. The view on other religions is positive.
4.    Indeed even before Vatican II there were steps at doing dialogical relationships notably between Christians and Jews. This was due to the experience of World War II in Europe. Vatican II, however, had added a new approach. It discusses the reality of religion as religion itself.
5.    The document, Nostra aetate, is a big sandwich. In more technical terms it is a “chiasm”. The first and the last paragraphs form an “inclusion” and in-between them is a discussion on the different religions. For this document the Church rejects nothing holy and true in other religions. The Church recognizes, preserves and promotes the good spiritual and moral elements in other religions (see Nostra aetate #2).  We add: “The Church reproves, as foreign to the mind of Christ, any discrimination against men or harassment of them because of their race, color, condition of life, or religion” (Nostra aetate #5).
6.    Of course if we stay firm in the Catholic tradition we still say that all humanity will find fulfillment in Christ. “Indeed, she proclaims, and ever must proclaim Christ ‘the way, the truth, and the life’ (John 14:6), in whom men may find the fullness of religious life, in whom God has reconciled all things to Himself” (Nostra aetate #2).
7.    After Vatican II a lot of discussion—and very theological at that—took place regarding our stand in front of other religions. Thus we see the three positions: exclusivist, inclusivist, and pluralist. We, ourselves, do not agree with the exclusivist stand. The Church does not anymore sound exclusivist in her position. The discussion seems to be “hot” between the inclusivist and the pluralist.
8.    Inclusivists, as we have studied before, see Christ present and at work in other religious traditions. Pluralists do not see the link between Christ and salvation in other religions. Each is saved according to his/her religious mediator.
9.    The debate is “hot”. Inclusivists feel that pluralists abandon the ship and give up on Christ as unique and universal mediator. Pluralists think that inclusivists lack respect for other religious traditions and under-estimate the depth and values of those religions.
10.           While the debate is going on the world is in a mess. As we see, this mess is not really triggered by religion. It so happens that religion is instrumental; it so happens thatreligion is used to facilitate the mess. In the midst of social and global conflicts supplemented by religious traditions, might we not be barking at the wrong tree?
11.           When inclusivists and pluralists debate their debate may be very interesting, fascinating and even absorbing. But then the world is asking about what to do with social issues, what do to with the financial crises, what to do with the environmental damage, what to do with violence and discrimination, what to do with geo-politics, etc. We can ask if the debate between inclusivists and pluralists is so relevant considering that the main source of contemporary issues is not religion. Well, just asking.
12.           It is relevant to encounter people of other religions. This is true. But the encounter may now have to be also relevant in terms of joining others in their pains and hopes within a very messy world. And so there is the tendency for a new terminology. If we, Christians, move to encounter others in dialogue, we may need to be less of ad gentes and more of inter-gentes. This has been signaled by Jonathan Y. Tan (see
13.           Let us admit that, today, the concrete social contexts cannot be ignored. These contexts and the mess in it influences the way we look at each other. Is it not true, for example, that many Muslims today suffer discrimination because of the violence done in the name of Islam even if the real issue is not Islam?
14.           Might we not need to see dialogue differently today? Can we see it less about how Christ is present in other religions and more about how we are led by Christ to encounter others. Hence we do not focus on “how is Christ present there in the other religions”. Instead we ask: “How can I deepen and put to action my faith in Christ as I encounter people of other religions”. In other words what is in my faith that calls me to dialogue and how can this dialogue deepen my faith. Can we not take a subtle shift away from (but, of course, not dropping) that issue of how Christ is in other religions and move to our own inner conversion of responding to Christ’s invitation to encounter others. How Christ is present there in other religions might even be beyond our own competence to discover. We appreciate the pneumatology of Pope John Paul II (in his Redemptoris missio). Let us trust the holy Spirit in determining how the “Seeds of the Word” is in other religions.
15.           We can see dialogue then as an invitation for partners in dialogue to deepen in what is specific in each one’s religious tradition. Let each deepen on the specificity of one’s own religion. In encountering others I deepen my own Christian faith. I discover more my own depths. This, we might say, has been hinted by Pope John Paul II in his description of dialogue (again in his Redemptoris missio).
16.           Why do we ask for this subtle shift? We want to look closer at our relationships with others rather than on evaluating how others are “saved or not saved”. Sure, we might want to worry about salvation; but right now we are all in the same messy world and we need to get our acts together. Our interest today is more about what happens to our relationships in this world? This is crucial because it will reflect who is, for me, God and what is my faith.
17.           Can we not try and situate inter-religious dialogue within social (and global) issues? A Magisterium document published right after Redemptoris missio can help us in this. This document is the Dialogue and Proclamation and it suggests the (now well-known) forms of dialogue (#42). We cite them here:

The forms of dialogue
There exist different forms of interreligious dialogue. It may be useful to recall those mentioned by the 1984 document of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue(17). It spoke of four forms, without claiming to establish among them any order of priority:
a.     The dialogue of life, where people strive to live in an open and neighbourly spirit, sharing their joys and sorrows, their human problems and preoccupations.
b.    The dialogue of action, in which Christians and others collaborate for the integral development and liberation of people.
c.     The dialogue of theological exchange, where specialists seek to deepen their understanding of their respective religious heritages, and to appreciate each other's spiritual values.
d.    The dialogue of religious experience, where persons, rooted in their own religious traditions, share their spiritual riches, for instance with regard to prayer and contemplation, faith and ways of searching for God or the Absolute.

18.           Did not Pope John Paul II, himself, initiate a dialogue in Assisi and it was a dialogue of “religious experience”: a praying together. Whether we like it or not (because some might not like it) the encounter was initiated and organized by a Roman Catholic. Pope John Paul II was simply fulfilling the insights of Vatican II and the quest for dialogue. The Pope was also simply fulfilling the role of the Church as “sacrament” of salvation and kingdom, already intuited in Lumen gentium.
19.           If, indeed, we take seriously the call for dialogue, are we not, ourselves, fulfilling what has been described in our very own faith that Christ prays for all human unity: “that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you” (Jn17/21).
20.           Can we not see dialogue as a service to humanity’s unity? In fact, even in our very own countries, indeed there are efforts for unity done by people of different religious traditions.
21.           Today fragmentation is a trend. Our theological discussions might need to lead us to also consider relevant, concrete issues. Issues like living together, ecology, peace, freedom, justice, inequality, discrimination, they are all touched by theology too. Our theology of dialogue needs relevance. We are, today, challenged by many social and global issues. It is fantastic to “know each other”, and this needs engagement too in establishing more justice, more peace, more respect among all of us. Can dialogue help “humanize” the world better? Can it not lead to a more reconciled and fraternal society?
22.           Let us end with a passage from the encyclical, Evangelii Gaudium, of Pope Francis. He writes about inter-religious dialogue (#250):

This dialogue is in first place a conversation about human existence or simply, as the bishops of India have put it, a matter of “being open to them, sharing their joys and sorrows”. In this way we learn to accept others and their different ways of living, thinking and speaking. We can then join one another in taking up the duty of serving justice and peace, which should become a basic principle of all our exchanges. A dialogue which seeks social peace and justice is in itself, beyond all merely practical considerations, an ethical commitment which brings about a new social situation. Efforts made in dealing with a specific theme can become a process in which, by mutual listening, both parts can be purified and enriched. These efforts, therefore, can also express love for truth. 

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