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Religion: the missing element in dialogue.

In her excellent book, Making Peace Prevail: Preventing Violent Conflict in Macedonia, Alice Ackermann documented how Macedonia, in the years following its declaration of independence in 1991, managed to prevent the irruption of the violent conflict that had engulfed other republics during the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia. She noted how the contributions of many official and unofficial individuals, agencies, institutions, and groups--internal and external to the state--have played a crucial part in what she termed "timely, multifaceted preventive diplomacy": (1)
 The case of Macedonia demonstrates, above all, that conflict
 prevention requires not only good will but hard work by many actors,
 on many levels. A broad-based network of institutions coordinating
 their preventive efforts, the promotion of power-sharing provisions,
 and the political will to implement preventive action in a timely
 fashion were as important as a moderate leadership willing to pursue
 accommodative policies with respect to ethnic minorities and
 neighboring countries. (2)

Efforts toward conflict-prevention can bring positive results, and Macedonia is a case in point. This is not to say that the political situation in that region does not remain precarious or that efforts toward further conflict-prevention can be left to chance.

Indeed, Ackermann argued that conflict-prevention remains an on-going task, and she pointed to the need to develop "a culture of political dialogue, accommodation, power sharing, proportional representation, and coexistence" if a viable future for Macedonia were to be sustained. (3) Such a culture of dialogue, she suggested, would be required on many levels, four of which she listed: among the players within the political leadership (Level I), between ethnic groups and political movements (Level II), through third-party actors in international and regional organizations (Level III), and from within nongovernmental and other grassroots organizations (Level IV). (4) Interestingly, Ackermann located a role for religious groups in the fourth category of agencies, as part of democratic civil society.

This promotion of dialogue not only represents practical wisdom in the Macedonian context, but it also reflects a bigger picture across the globe. Where democratic government prevails, there is the emergence of dialogue. In an age that has supposedly moved beyond the global politics of bloc ideological confrontation, dialogue among different factions for the purposes of power-sharing has become inevitable. It is reflected, for instance, in mainstream European politics, in the rush to dominate the broad center ground of political debate. The single political wisdom of either the right or the left is deemed not to have all the answers.

What is the role of religion in emerging democratic countries where a "culture of dialogue" is being recommended? Ackermann's assignation of religion's role to civil society seems sensible enough, yet it may not be sufficient. If part of the role of the state is to engender a sense of shared values, how will it achieve this if it does not acknowledge that traditionally the most significant cultural factor shaping the values of individuals and groups has been religious life and practice? The whole thrust of religion is such that it cannot remain content only within the private realm of human experience. Yet, the whole thrust of the democratic state is toward inclusivity and equality for its citizens, which will also entail taking their religion seriously.

So, there is a dilemma for the religiously committed. Religion cannot be allowed to dominate the public square, yet neither can religion abandon it. From the political point of view, however, history teaches us that religion is a volatile activity. At one level, it creates a sense of community, generating identity and cohesion, which is valuable to the state in its search for shared values, but, at another level, religion has functioned to divide citizens and has been enlisted in the service of antagonism and war within and between states. Therefore, the democratic state can be forgiven if it expresses a degree of wariness toward the religions. Nevertheless, one reason why a "culture of dialogue" might be prized today is for its potential to carve a way forward among varied and often competing interests, including religious interests.

Religion stands both to gain from the new culture of dialogue and to make a substantial contribution to it. On the one hand, the gain will be in terms of religious traditions' having to refamiliarize themselves with the best of their ethical wisdoms: their recommendations of friendship with the stranger, compassion for the oppressed, and shared humanity with fellow citizens. Moreover, in the dialogical state, the religions will be compelled to reverse their histories of antagonism and suspicion of one another, for they will be welcome in the public square only to the extent that they are prepared to share the task of nation-building, not nation-destroying. This is not to say that religion should turn itself into becoming merely a function of the state apparatus. Indeed, prophetic religion cannot allow that to happen. Prophetic religion also has an obligation to offer criticism to the state when it is acting contrary to basic moral norms, as, for example, when it promotes the interests of one group or class over those of another in ways that are oppressive. However, in the overall task of nation-building, the religions are required to lay down their ancient feuds.

On the other hand, the contribution that the religions could make to a "culture of dialogue" is potentially very significant. A plural world has to learn to negotiate a core commitment to common values while simultaneously celebrating the diversity that yields richness and color to all our relationships. That is a political task, but it also a religious task. Given the fact that religious consciousness is often the motivating factor in the cultural self-definition of a people or ethnic group, then, if the religions themselves can model dialogical relationships, this will add to the stability of a nation, as well as to the future of the world as a whole.

Interreligious dialogue is now a many-sided movement that has been gathering in strength over the last thirty years. Sometimes it is promoted as a practical necessity: Without dialogue we cannot solve our social, political, and ecological problems. Others embrace it for the sake of exploring the universalistic thrust at the heart of religious awareness itself: There is bound to be more of "God" than we realize in the world. Simply through friendships and positive encounters we are discovering an openness to others that is enriching in many unforeseen personal and theological ways.

I want now to present a model of interreligious dialogue, which is built upon the following quotation that I submit as a working definition of dialogue:
 We probably more often learn more from each other as human beings,
 even as religious human beings, and understand God better, when
 instead of marking off our positions from each other by verbal
 encounters, we go on questioning together, seeking together--fully
 conscious of our differences and yet, at the same time, as if these
 differences, so to speak, did not exist-what the truth might be.

These remarks are highly paradoxical. There is the honoring of differences between religions without letting differences have the final word. There is the truth of tradition combined with openness and questing.

How do these principles apply in interreligious dialogue? I wish now to pursue my model of dialogue in the three main areas of religious life--spiritual, ethical, and theological. The model represents both a process of encounter and a means for raising substantial issues about religious truth. In dialogue we meet one another as equals, and we assume that there is always more to learn from being in relationship than when we exist in isolation. Dialogue commits us to the other and thereby binds us in a shared adventure of religious discovery and hope. The model can be represented diagrammatically, as follows:


Dividing up a religion in this threefold manner is, of course, purely a convenience and a device. Yet, while all traditions have different mixes and emphases among the three modes, I believe it is valid as a working model. It means that we can enter the dialogue from any vantage point or dimension depicted by any of the circles. Some of us are interested in working out questions of believing, some in spiritual discernment, and some in action for the sake of creating a better world. Each overlapping circle eventually leads one to the others. The model is simply trying to honor preferences that most of us have. Furthermore, each circle takes one in dialogue on a movement between levels 1 and 3, continuously moving back and forth. Let me explain further with reference to each circle. I begin with the notion of spirituality.


All religions are founded on a basic vision that is glimpsed in experience. This vision may be focused in a book, a person, sacred stories, or nature. In turn, the spiritual practices of a tradition exist to re-present that basic vision for different times and places. Whether elaborate or simple, highly ritualistic or minimal, the spiritual practice reproduces the power and evocative awareness of living in the presence of what we call the "Transcendent" (though the use of this term is by no means unproblematic). In dialogue, as we approach the strangeness of the other, we assume an attitude of receptivity.

Observing Strangers

Before the practice of another tradition we are first outsiders or strangers. What we see on the surface of a tradition tells us little about the real spiritual transactions that are taking place on the inside of people's lives in particular settings, so we need to learn to be attentive to what the spiritual practice induces in people. For example, what is happening on the interior of the Jew as he or she rehearses the history of the people of Israel in prayers and singing? When Christians speak of the bread and wine as the body and blood of Christ, what do they intend by the words they use? When Muslims bow down in prayer, what is being induced in them as they do this? As we are so unacquainted with the spiritual practices of others, there is an obligation to wait silently, without prejudging, so that we may eventually gain some insight into what is being enacted through the various ritual gestures and practices that religious believers perform.

Welcome Guest

As we cease to prejudge others--for example, despising them as idolaters or as naive God-worshipers--we will be allowed into the sacred space of others as a guest. Guests are those who are welcomed to approach closer to the heart of the other; they cease to be merely observers. They come to learn how the basic vision of a tradition is reproduced through the symbolic form of ritual and practice--for example, how Passover for Jews recalls the liberating action of God for the present as well as the past, or how the distribution of prasad at Hindu temples after arti binds the worshipers' devotion to the love of God. We will taste--sometimes literally--from the inside. We will tread on the "holy ground" of the religious other. We will learn how the past comes alive in the present. For example, it has been said of the celebration of the Christian Christmas that its purpose is to activate the reminder that God is continually coming to God's people. It is not primarily the historical remembrance of a legend from long ago. Ritualistic memory alerts the spiritual perception to the reality that God's coming at Christmas and God's coming continually over time reinforce one another as the central meaning of this particular ritualistic practice. Ritualistic enacted memory draws guests into the different world of the other, and they come to know it as "holy ground."

Shared Experiences

As we come to be affected by what we discover on someone else's sacred ground, we move from the status of guest to sharing spiritual experience at deeper levels. It may be that we even incorporate something of the discovery into our own tradition in order to reshape it in light of new encounters. This has happened, for example, in relation to meditation practice, where many in the Christian community have embraced silent meditation in their own devotional exercises. Again, we might come to appreciate an element of religious insight that is emphasized in another's tradition but needs reawakening in one's own. For example, if we stay long enough in a Jain temple, many of us might recover some of the lost respect for the animal kingdom and for inanimate creation, a respect so desperately needed today, given the rapid destruction of the planet's ecosystems. I am not suggesting that people of different religious commitments undergo the same experiences in different forms; I do not think that they do. However, there is sufficient human empathy between different experiences that we are able to absorb aspects of spirituality that were once alien to us into our own tradition.


Turning to the ethics circle of dialogical interaction, it is probably true to say that this represents the area where people of different religions feel instinctively drawn together. Perhaps this is not surprising, given that the needs of the world are so painfully acute: ecological devastation, nuclear war, economic inequalities--these are no respecters of persons. There seems to be a growing awareness that, irrespective of religious allegiance, we sink or swim together. Again, there is a threefold movement to follow.

Building Trust

A first step between people of different faith-traditions is to forge relationships of trust. Without trust, religious peoples will scarcely learn to cooperate at all. There is a long history of mutual suspicion to resolve, but we cannot transcend that history without reaching out in trust. To begin with, trust will be directed at overcoming the stereotypes that religions have of one another, for example, that Christians worship three gods, that Hindus worship wood and stone, that Muslims are bent on holy wars, that Buddhists are indifferent to the world's material problems, or that Jews believe they are superior because they are "chosen" by God. Any list is bound to be lengthy. It has been reasonably said that the negative descriptions that religious people project upon others are generally just that--projected fictions that provide the justification for suspicion and hatred. Building trust is the only way out of that cul-de-sac.

Common Concerns

As we learn basic trust, we come to share common concerns and learn to cooperate for the sake of building a better world. Of course, we join with anyone to do this, but it may be that cooperation among the religions could have a striking impact in certain areas--obvious examples are issues of racism, multi-culturalism, and refugees--as these areas themselves reveal the strong ties between religion and other factors such as race and culture. On a larger scale, if the religions learned to overcome their basic mistrust of one another, some of the roots of war around the world stand a chance of being disentangled. Opportunities for cooperation abound at local, national, and international levels and in conjunction with many agencies. In addressing common problems we acknowledge that each tradition has its own wisdom to offer, a wisdom that will resonate with much in one's own tradition, though it may not always be equivalent.

Shared Values

Finally, at level three, in the dialogue of ethics we address questions as to whether the religions can share basic values. Again, as values vary markedly both within and between traditions, the discovery of shared values will not necessarily he automatic. However, the question of whether there is some core of shared values is real and urgent. This was answered in the affirmative by the document "Towards a Global Ethic: An Initial Declaration," which was put forward at the second Parliament of the World's Religions in Chicago in 1993. The Parliament's publicity statement said: "We affirm that a common set of core values is found in the teachings of the religions, and that these form the basis of a global ethic." This is a bold statement, because it is not obvious. We might all affirm truth and goodness and justice and equality, but what these amount to in terms of how our different traditions have interpreted these concepts varies enormously. As a result, some commentators have said the search for a Global Ethic is a chimera.

Yet, this view also does not match reality. We know that the world is interconnected in untold ways: For example, Muslim economic decisions in Saudi Arabia affect the lives of millions of people far beyond the shores of Saudi Arabia; agreements about action to protect the environment are global in scope; actions taken against perceived military threats stretch beyond borders and regions. There already exists a shared activity between traditions and cultures, driven by the modern conditions of life, and such activity requires an ethical basis. Moreover, we have the hard-won international agreements about human rights that are universalist in thrust, even if they are not fully operative in all countries and even if they are not flawless. Shared values are possible.

The Chicago Global Ethic outlined four commitments in dialogue. We are to move from a negative state of being toward a culture of nonviolence and respect for life, a culture of solidarity and just economic order, a culture of tolerance and life of truthfulness, and a culture of equal rights and partnership between men and women. This is a massive agenda and easily informs the substance of dialogue in ethics for many years to come.


I call the third circle of my diagram the "theological/philosophical" circle, and I use that conflation because not all religions acknowledge the reality of the transcendent in theistic terms. More serious, however, is the need to recognize that it is this area that is probably perceived as the most intractable or threatening area for dialogue. It is threatening because other forms of encounter have the potential to draw people together, but differences over belief-structures tend to propel them apart. Let me follow through again my three levels of dialogue in relation to religious beliefs.

Distinctive Faith

Religions have distinct basic visions of ultimate reality and distinct ways of expressing these in beliefs and practices. For dialogue to proceed with any degree of validity, it is important that we truly strive to understand the other with the same seriousness with which we would wish others to understand us. In one sense, this is a variation on the Golden Rule (treat others as we would have them treat us). We understand as we wish to be understood. This requires a sustained period of listening and a sustained attempt at clearing away misperceptions and stereotypes about the other and is itself an act of respect and love. We wish to be true to the heart of experience and to one another. Therefore, in this approach to the other, we may come to learn about the samenesses and the differences between us. Or, as I prefer to say, we learn about the strangenesses and the resonances between faith-traditions. We may experience ourselves as occupying utterly different conceptual worlds, but we also sense a resonance between them. This prepares the ground for the next move.

Mutual Understanding

In a pluralistic world we note that our religion, which functions as a marker of our national, group, or cultural identity, is one among many such identities. By training ourselves in knowing others as they would like to be known, we come close to a state of mutual understanding. From this vantage point we also note that all religions offer what one philosopher of religion has called a limitlessly better possibility in life than that which pertains at present. The religions variously name this better good, and the experience of it will be different also--the goals of Buddhist, Christian, or Muslim practice are not the same. Nevertheless, we observe that what happens in and through the different communities of religious commitment is authentic, real, and, therefore, in some sense true. It is not unreasonable to hypothesize the existence of a family resemblance between traditions, but it will be one that does not require us to mix religions up or prejudge them according to our own categories. Further, critical thinking teaches us that our religious beliefs are strongly tied to historical and cultural factors, which has the effect of helping us to appreciate the distinctivenesses of tradition, yet without capitulating to an easy incommensurability between traditions. Religious affirmations are pointers to truth, not packages of truth; recognizing this enables us to move into the second level of dialogue.

Shared Truth

Religious traditions result from religious vision, experienced and initially expressed in particular cultural forms, yet with a universalist impulse that reaches beyond the cultural confines of origins. On the basis of this universalism all traditions have usually found a way in principle of granting theological space to other religions. However, this acceptance of the other has simultaneously never been allowed to undermine the superiority of one's own religious truth. In other words, parity between faith-traditions has, to date, been unthinkable. Interreligious dialogue questions whether we can afford much longer to maintain this position. For many, the dialogue that commits us to mutual transformation in light of learning from the other also involves a further assumption about parity between faith-traditions, such that different belief-systems, theologies, and philosophies are considered to be culturally conditioned and symbolic forms of severally expressed commitments to an ultimate reality that is beyond the scope of all language. As we come to share in someone else's truths, we learn more of the complexity and mystery at the heart of ultimate reality itself. It is not that each religion perceives one part of the whole, which, when put together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, makes the complete picture. Rather, each tradition is said to perceive the whole of reality but only in part. Moreover, the mystics of all traditions have always known this.

Concluding Remarks

In the future it is likely that we will not live out of one tradition alone. Valuing the religious path of the other will become part of valuing my own religious path. In this way, we learn about, with, and through the other. This happens in all areas of religious life and practice. There are the riches of spiritualities to savor; there is the task of building a better world; there is the need to explore philosophical and theological understanding so that we are not made dizzy at the contemplation of it all. All that is required is the willingness to enter a new way of being religious in a plural world that is unlike any other we have known.

Dialogue is both a fragile enterprise and a tough vocation, yet its rewards are immense. With perseverance, I am confidant that we shall come to see dialogue as its own reward, involving us all in the transformative power of a new way of pursuing religious truth and life for our ourselves and, more importantly, for our world. Dialogue leads us to a deeper sense of communion with one another: first by clearing away negative images and misinformed views of history, second by empathizing with the basic religious disposition in life that is exemplified by the great traditions of our world, and third by sharing the religious quest together in openness and truth.

Interreligious dialogue is not only rewarding in its own terms, but, potentially, it is also a model for that wider political dialogue for which Ackermann called in relation to emerging democratic plural nations such as Macedonia. The religions at their best speak of the transformation of the world. Can we be open to the suggestion that such transformation will be all the more effective and truthful in today's circumstances if it is pursued dialogically?

(1) Alice Ackermann, Making Peace Prevail: Preventing Violent Conflict in Macedonia, Syracuse Studies on Peace and Conflict Resolution (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2000), p. 162.

(2) Ibid., p. 8.

(3) Ibid., p. 168.

(4) Ibid., pp. 169-170.

(5) Heinrich Ott, "The Dialogue between the Religions as a Contemporary Theological Responsibility," in C. D. Jathanna, ed., Dialogue in Community: Essays in Honour of S. J. Samartha (Mangalore: Karnataka Theological Research Institute, 1982), p. 195.

Alan Raze (Anglican), rector of St. Andrew's Church, Aylestone, Leicester, since 1994, was ordained in the Church of England in 1976. He previously served as an assistant priest, as chaplain at the University of Kent at Canterbury, and as Director of Studies, Southwark Ordination Course (ecumenical), London. He has a B.Sc. in chemistry from the University of Bradford; an Oxford diploma in theology; and an M.A. in theology from the University of Birmingham (1982). He has lectured at universities in England and India and, since 1997, has been an Honorary Visiting Fellow at the Centre for the History of Religion, Interfaith Dialogue, and Pluralism, at the University of Leicester. Active in many ecumenical and inter faith organizations, since 1992 be has edited World Faiths Encounter, published by the World Congress of Faiths, Oxford. In 2003 he became Editor-in-Chief for Interreligious Insight: A Journal of Dialogue and Engagement. His most recent books include Christians and Religious Pluralism (SCM Press, 1st ed., 1983; 2nd exp. ed., 1994) and Interfaith Encounter: The Twin Tracks of Theology and Dialogue (SCM Press, 2001); and he edited True to This Earth (with Roger Williamson) (Oneworld, 1995); and Religions in Dialogue: From Theocracy to Democracy (with Ingrid Sharer) (Ashgate, 2002).
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Author:Race, Alan
Publication:Journal of Ecumenical Studies
Geographic Code:4EXMA
Date:Jan 1, 2002
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