In a sense interreligious dialogue is nothing new. People from various traditions have been talking to each other for many centuries and borrowing ideas and practices from each other to enrich and expand each tradition. It has been said that St. John of the Cross borrowed some ideas from the Sufis, and the Sufis imported some practices and methods from the early Christian monks. Hindus and Buddhists seem to have reached the ancient Hellenistic world and had exchanges with the Neoplatonist thinkers and mystics in the West. Also, Buddhism borrowed stuff from the native shamanic religion of Tibet, and so on, and so on. However, in the 20th Century, interreligious dialogue takes on a new intensity and scope, and there is a felt need to engage “the other” as never before. We might attribute that to the simple recognition that we all better get along if we are to have a truly liveable planet. This might be called an “ethical dialogue”–we discover we need to talk to one another and to cooperate on many levels if we are to ward off the dehumanization of our lives by war, violence, famine, technological and economic manipulation, and finally global warming. It is the recognition that truly “No man is an island.”
But much more than that has also been unfolding in interreligious dialogue. Perhaps for the first time there is a felt need on the part of many people in various traditions to encounter and engage “the other” precisely as “other.” No longer, it is felt, that we can stay within the “fortress” of our own tradition, aloof from “the other.” Nor is “the other” to be seen as a threat or an entity to be swallowed up or conquered. No, that very “otherness” is to be respected and maintained and held in a kind of positive tension. “Difference” is now seen as a gift which needs unpacking and unfolding until we discover its real Truth. To borrow a term from Eastern Christian iconography, the “difference” between me and you is now to be seen as “the space of the heart.” It is in this space, which is “our difference” that we sense the discovery of our One Heart.
Those of us who are members of the Christian West need a deep moment of profound repentance before we can truly engage in this kind of dialogue. We have not dealt well with “otherness” or “difference.” When Christian Europeans discovered the New World and encountered “the otherness” of the native peoples, they debated whether these people were to be considered as human beings. Then they enslaved them or exploited them if not totally exterminating them. Ultimately this shows a profound fear of “otherness” and a deep-seated arrogance at the heart of Western Civilization that most Westerners even today do not recognize. It comes covered over with a thick veneer of benevolence dished out from a seeming position of a superiority engendered by all our marvelous gadgetry. It will take profound humility to even recognize this arrogance. Now whatever problems other traditions carry that might impede this dialogue, their adherents must assess that themselves.
Interreligious dialogue has taken place on several levels. On one level people from different traditions have come together to share and exchange views on matters of life experience, on matters of practices and methods, on solutions to practical problems, etc. This is very good and it fosters friendships and collaborations that are very helpful. But there is a level that is also very difficult: that of teachings, doctrine, claims made, historical statements, etc. Here we run up against some interesting problems. Again we will address the issues only from the Christian side. Those from other traditions have to address these issues in their own way.
First of all we will just skip the problem of fundamentalism–it fears dialogue; it wants no part of dialogue. Now institutional official Catholicism and evangelical Protestantism have fostered dialogue, but it seems so often that a “conversion dynamic” is at work deep down in these well-intentioned encounters. What happens is that the “otherness” of “the other” is seen as only a kind of preparation for “our message,” and in a friendly way “the other”, given enough time and effort, can be transformed into a mirror image of ourselves. The actual theological position is of course more complicated and more multifaceted, but the gist of it is still a kind of reduction of the “otherness” to a surface reality. Strangely enough a similar problem lies at the other end of the dialogue spectrum. Here also “the otherness” of “the other” is a surface reality, but in this case we can easily skip “that otherness” because it is merely in words or language, and then we move to a premature proclamation of oneness. No transformation is needed because we are already one no matter how different and contradictory the teachings may seem. Here also many are well-intentioned, but in attributing “difference” to mere word play or in the mere inadequacy of any tradition to “grasp the whole,” they miss the point: “difference” is neither a superficial reality, nor a negative reality, but a gift with which and within which we should abide together in love and freedom.
There probably is a need to mention some lived examples of the above. Very well known is Thomas Merton. Much, much less well known is Rabbi Ariel Bension. He was a Sephardic Jew born in Jerusalem, and he was one of the first Sephardi to study in a modern European university. He wrote a book that is also not well-known: The Zohar in Mulim and Christian Spain. Rabbi Bension had intimate knowledge of both Kabbalah and Sufism. During the last phase of his life he was a rabbi in Manastir, a Sephardic and Sufi center in the Balkans, where Jews frequented the Sufi assemblies of their Albanian and Turkish Muslim neighbors–that is before the Nazis and the Serbs massacred both. Rabbi Bension died in 1932.
Somewhere Jesus in the Gospels says: “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” This is a radical statement as it stands in its naked simplicity–not very comforting to the spirit of our times, nor of any times actually. But let us broaden this saying even a bit more in the context of what we are discussing. Each of our traditions is loaded with riches–we are rich in rituals, practices, teachings and doctrines. Paradoxically enough these may become a real obstacle to our entering “the kingdom of God.” Here let us listen again to the Sufi Bayazid Bastami: “The thickest veils between man and God are the wise man’s wisdom, the worshipper’s worship and the devotion of the devout.” In a sense we have to pass “through the eye of the needle”–this is what it means to encounter “the other” (and of course from the theist perspective the Ultimate Other is God!). As Jesus says, for man this is impossible, but for God all things are possible. And that means giving ourselves to the process and letting it carry us to a place we never foresaw. Now that does NOT mean jettisoning doctrines, teachings, etc. when they become inconvenient for what we think is unity. But it does mean that we begin to feel that we need each other; that we need “the other” precisely as other; that what “the other” brings to the table begins to open up new dimensions of understanding of our own tradition. This is only the first step. We take it. Then we see where the next step will be. We learn to live with “the otherness” of “the other”; we dwell with the “mystery of the difference” even as we open our hearts to “the other.” Perhaps we will have some hard questions for “the other”; perhaps he/she will have some hard questions for us. This is where we must not be impatient We may even discover that our own tradition is actually a mystery that needs to be rediscovered by us! We may find a very big question lying at the very center of our heart, a question about our own identity(cf. Abhishiktananda). Let us listen to the great German poet Rilke who was writing to a young beginning poet, but whose words are very applicable to our situation:
“I would like to beg you to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”