I am secretary of the Jewish Christian Muslim Association of Australia (JCMA). We have recently been having a very fruitful discussion on our discussion board about the “purpose of Interfaith Dialogue”. This came at a good time for me, because I had been asked to prepare an article on that very subject for a local Jewish publication. Given that I don’t have a high Jewish readership on this ‘ere blog (I wonder if it is the port – I have to admit it isn’t kosher…), I don’t think I will be stealing their thunder if I publish the submitted article here for you to read. Keep in mind who I was writing for. I may have stated things a little differently or with a different nuance for a Catholic audience. (Incidentally, I am speaking tonight at CulturED – the dinner that follows the 6:30 Adoration in the Cathedral organised by the Catholic Youth Office – on this very topic too).
Anyway, here is the article for what it is worth.
The Purpose of Interreligious Dialogue?
A recent robust discussion on the JCMA email discussion list, begun by a Jewish commentator, revolved around the question: “What is the purpose of interreligious dialogue?” Is the best outcome for which we can hope “peaceful coexistence”?
Certainly harmony within our multicultural and multifaith society is an important outcome in itself, but most of the responses to this question in the discussion suggested that the real aims are much deeper.
It needs to be said from the outset that one of those “deeper” aims is not that we might form some kind of “super-religion”. Genuine interfaith dialogue does not imply relativism or syncretism, a smorgasbord of bits and pieces. Genuine interfaith dialogue does not aim at watering down our faith, but involves fuller commitment. Nor is interfaith dialogue a “debate”. And it should go without saying that there is no place in genuine dialogue for proselytising.
So, what is the “deeper” purpose of interfaith dialogue? What makes this dialogue worthwhile for all religious believers in our society today? In the JCMA discussion, two purposes emerged above all others.
The first is that we might come to “know” each other in a genuine way. A true dialogue involves meeting one another face to face. It may happen formally at special meetings of representatives of different faith traditions, or informally, “over the back fence” with our neighbour who has a different belief to ourselves. But it always takes the other person seriously as a human being created by God and endowed with the equal dignity as ourselves. It means listening in deep humility and openness to the other. It is an invitation to mutual respect, even when we are not in agreement.
The second outcome of genuine interreligious dialogue arises out of the first. Its significance should in no way be under-estimated. I am speaking of true and genuine friendship.
Over the ten years or so that I have been closely involved in interfaith relations in Melbourne, the greatest treasure I have received from this experience is many new and real friends I have made in communities outside my own. Such friendship doesn’t arise out of one meeting alone. It arises over a period of time in which we have continual contact. It is strengthened when we work together on some mutual project or other for the sake of our own communities or for the wider society in Melbourne and Victoria. Many of these friendships have been formed by my involvement in the Jewish Christian Muslim Association, which provides for many such encounters to take place, particularly during our conferences.
A colleague in the work of interfaith dialogue in the Melbourne Catholic Archdiocese recently spoke of these relationships as a “covenantal” friendships. The “covenant” in a friendship such as this involves a commitment to be honest with and trustful of one another, as well as being worthy of that trust in return. This kind of covenant between people of different faiths enables the friendship to grow and becomes a foundation upon which to build further.
Some people, after their first experience of an interfaith meeting, may be disappointed. “It was just coffee and cake – we never addressed the hard questions.” Interfaith dialogue often does begin with coffee and cake, but this is just the first step. One should not expect too much of the first meeting, which may, at this point, appear to be “mere civility”.
But over time, the “knowing” and friendship grows, and an environment of mutual trust and trust-worthiness emerges. Then is the time for a deeper experience of how the other experiences the Divine mystery. Then is the time for the robust discussion and the tackling of the “hard questions”. Then is the time for working out the problems which emerge when our traditions rub together – sometimes (too often) abrasively. But if time and effort is made to allow a true friendship to grow, the hindering factor of fear is removed, and good things can happen.
And here there can be a third “deep” outcome of interfaith dialogue. We are all aware that we live in an increasingly secularised world, where the rights of freedom of belief are challenged, and there is great pressure to “privatise” our faith and “keep it to ourselves”. One of the greatest arguments against allowing a place for religion in the public square is said to be that “they are always fighting one another”, or that religious belief is a cause of conflict rather than a path to peace.
When interfaith dialogue leads to interfaith cooperation, and that cooperation in turn produces something good for the whole of society, it becomes a powerful witness to the vital importance of religious conviction in the public square. Thus our dialogue, our knowing one another, our “covenantal” friendship across boundaries of faith can promote solidarity among all people, action for social justice, defence of moral values and peace and liberty in our world today.
And that is as good a purpose as any that I can think of for pursuing interfaith relations!