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Interfaith Dialogue: The What The Why And The How?  





The Golden Rule in World Religions

THE GOLDEN RULE POSTER Multi-faith Sacred Writings and Symbols from 13 Traditions  

Mayor David Miller Meets With The Toronto Area Interfaith Council

TRANSFORMING DEVELOPMENT Exploring Approaches to Development from Religious Perspectives



A SALUTE TO CANADA My Adopted Land Of Unparalleled Multicultural And Religious Diversity

NAIN GATHERS IN VANCOUVER Stealing away to Paradise 

THE GOLDEN RULE: Unity in Diversity  





Interfaith Dialogue: 

The What The Why And The How?  


Jonathan Napier MA, Wilfrid Laurier University

April 8, 2010


The questions academics ask are reminiscent to me of trying to remember my vowels when I was in grade school. The questions are: who, what, when, where, how, and sometimes why.

For dialogue there are typically two groups of theorists, there are the ‘what and how’ of dialogue and the ‘why group’. The ‘what and how group’ are filled with scholars like Leonard Swidler, Harvey Cox, and Rabbi Soloveitchik. What is the goal? What are we going to talk about? What will dialogue look like? How do we achieve this? Those are the questions this group answers and seeks to answer in their research.

Then there are the why people. Why dialogue? Why? Why interfaith? They tend to get caught up in the eschatology of it all. A lot of the foundational work for this group was done by John Hick or maybe William Cantwell Smith. The unity of heaven/God/afterlife/ultimate reality/ or whatnot is what they are trying to discover. They want to bring different faiths together so we can learn about the completeness of what religions are, what religions are about, why people are faithful, and what they are faithful too in a deeper way than ever before. This was always done by studying religions separately or comparatively – now we can study religions together. They will discuss what makes up faith as a component of interfaith and what is meant by dialogue. Dialogue is Greek, it comes from the words Dia meaning two (or many as it is often used) and logos, meaning speaking, reason or divine wisdom. So we get a sense of the transcendent as being an aspect of dialogue; the search for trying to find the highest form of truth - what better setting for this to take place than at an interfaith meeting.

The other area the ‘why group’ focuses on is: why do dialogue for the community? Or the world? Here you would read Hans Kung who famously said "there will be no peace among the nations without peace among the religions, that there will be no peace among the religions without a dialogue among the religions," or you can read Paul Knitter who applies liberation theology to interfaith dialogue theory saying that dialogue participants need to talk about the needy, the poor, the oppressed, the underdog, and stand up for them for dialogue to be meaningful.

Very rarely do you get someone who talks about the what, how and why, Mohammed Abu-Nimer does, and his focus is on peace talks in the Middle East. Diana Eck does sometimes, but not that much. I would like to look at these three questions together because they are intermingled beyond separation and they are interconnected whenever dialogue takes place.

Interfaith dialogue in North America is very much defined by the World’s Parliament of Religions which took place in 1893 as a part of the World Columbian Exposition. The Exposition was a celebration of modernity and human achievement which took place in Chicago. The best engineers, scientists, doctors, and philosophers came together to share their ideas and revel in their accomplishments. The Parliament of Religions was near the end of the Exposition and was a means of bringing different religious minds together to display the equality and progressiveness of the Parliament. William Hutchinson describes the Parliament as such:

The Parliament, in some ways was a rather modest venture, achieved epochal status because it was almost completely unprecedented. Intellectual and various other leaders of the various non-Western religions had never before been invited to such a gathering. Not only that; American Protestants had never included Jews and Catholics in a conference on religion, and almost never in meetings concerning other subjects of supposedly common concern. A mere seventy or eighty years earlier the idea that Hindus or Muslims might have intellectuals to send, or even that these religions might be real ones with something to offer, would have been considered laughable.

The World’s Parliament of religions brought together various ideas that were present at that time and challenged others. As a part of the World’s Columbian Exposition, the Parliament was a celebration of America and its perceived place in the world.

One of the main underlying ideas that was brought forth and subsequently challenged was what Richard Hughes Seager calls the ‘Columbian Myth.’ In this myth, America portrays itself as the secular inheritor of the enlightenment and the religious inheritor of the kingdom of God. America was celebrating that it could "build the kingdom of God on earth through the institutions of the republic." The exposition itself was meant to display the culmination of science, philosophy, and the also religious apex of civilization through the 1893 festivities. With the exposition taking place in America, it was displaying itself as the centre for human achievement. With the religions of the world meeting in an American metropolis there was an ever present sense of triumphalism and Christian universalism which was underlying the parliament despite the lip service made to the equality of all religious traditions.

What was not expected however, was that the myth would be challenged and eventually criticized thoroughly by both westerners and non-westerners alike. Keschel relates an anecdote in that "During the Parliament, one delegate from Japan pointed explicitly to the anti-Japanese sentiment that greeted him in America, with signs that read ‘No Japanese is allowed to enter here.’ ‘If such be the Christian ethics,’ he said, ‘well we are perfectly satisfied to remain heathen.’" Another delegate questioned the Christian triumphalism outright when Eck tells us that, "In seeking ‘universal values’, most parliament liberals really meant that Christianity was the emerging universal religion ... Dharmapala showed how the universal teachings of the Buddha had come to many centuries before Christ."

While the parliament advocated the inclusion of many religions, some saw this as merely a means of promoting a friendly style missionary project. More broadly, diversity was respected with the assumption that eventually the world would become more like America, that religions would become more like Christianity. So while Swami Vivekananda promoted religious unity across the globe his message was tampered by redefining what kind of universal religious unity this would be, i.e. it would not by an assimilating, Christianized world religion, rather a unity of diverse religions. He spoke about how no one religion should prosper at the expense of another. He stated that God would forbid the ridding of religious traditions, therefore Buddhism and Hinduism should continue on, despite what lay in the hearts of certain Christian missionaries.

Following the Exposition there was a hundred year gap before the next parliament took place. In 1993 the World’s Parliament of Religions met again to sign a declaration of peace and harmony as by each religious representative. By the time this parliament came about there were new myths to be promoted and others to be questioned by interfaith dialogue.

By 1993 scholars had thoroughly dismissed the notions of Christian supremisicism, triumphalism, and universalism as a thing of the past even if not all practitioners followed suit. Pragmatically speaking this was because one hundred years later other religions were still going strong and making their presence known in the religious studies departments in North America and throughout the continent more broadly. The immigration policies of the 60s and the 70s allowed for people of different colours and ethnicities to move much more freely into the US and Canada than ever before. This was reflected in the 1993 parliament which sought to bring about a new meaning for getting religious people together. In the first parliament there were Christians bringing in a few delegates from other religions, in 1993 this was a much more multi-religious event. More religions were represented and there was a higher ratio of non-Christians to Christians. This also affected the conversations and the goals of the 1993 parliament. Here the focus was not simply on ideas of equality and the religious unity that all religious people can be a part of; but there was an outward focus, not on religions themselves but on the world and religion’s role in the world. Because the notions of secularity had grown to the point where some people were wondering what good religion is, whether religions cause more violence and division than harmony and unity and the parliament responded in turn with the declaration Towards a Global Ethic where the focus was on bringing religious adherents to sign a document condemning violence, economic disparity, and promoting tolerance and equal status between men and women.

Since 1993 there has been a parliament every 5 (or so) years. There was one last December (2009) where the focus was on the condemnation of religious violence and issues of globalization such as sustainability of the environment and aboriginal reconciliation efforts around the world.

But interfaith dialogue has changed its meaning from simply mega-events like the parliaments. The parliaments draw anywhere from 6000-9000 people and Keschel notes that the excitement about parliaments isn’t so much in the presentations themselves (although that’s not to say they can’t be great) but in the conversations that take place randomly throughout the week. The elevator or coffee shop discussions where people from different faiths meet and discuss their lives, their thoughts and in some ways an aspect of who they are. This is referred to by some as the ‘dialogue of life’ in that it can take place anywhere – not just a conference but a workplace, bus stop, shopping mall or whatever, wherever two people of different faiths meet and have a conversation. These micro-conversations make up an aspect of interfaith dialogue collectively; they capture a sense of genuine conversation. Such conversations compliment the notions of a grand eschatological dialogue (with the intentional allusion to logos) in their simplicity and elegancy.

IGR fits uniquely in between other models of dialogue in several fashions. The conversations are organic, between people who have developed (or are developing) relationships between one another. The dialogue that takes place here has a formal topic "marriage" or "medical ethics" and yet it has an informal set up, people speak when compelled, there is no specific order or speaker, simply a moderator that tries to encourage every person who wants to speak to do so and ward off the chaos of an unmoderated group discussion.

IGR has sought to deal with the myths that have plagued interfaith dialogue in the past. There are guidelines to keep one religion from dominating the group and because the meetings are monthly and ongoing people can come or go as they please, issues that arise in the community can be addressed and genuine cohesion can be achieved.

Another means in which IGR is between models is that usually groups are defined as either social justice interfaith movements or simply dialogue groups. IGR nicely divides the meetings between half on discussion of religious themes and half on community involvement.

IGR also fits into this grander scheme of interfaith dialogue in North America because it too has myths that it tries to propagate and those that it tries to diminish. As we have seen over the past few months Waterloo is plagued with myths that Canada is solely a Christian Nation, that Muslims (or any "other") are to be feared, or that religious differences must become points of contention. IGR propagates myths like (and I got this from the IGR website) religious diversity can lead to enrichment, to deeper knowledge, to shared religious experience, to learning, understanding, and respect.

Elliade, a famous scholar of religion pointed out that we have to be careful when we say something is ‘just a myth’. There is power, truth, reality, and substance behind our myths. Myths can relate to us either sacredness or profanity. Myths define how we form our worldviews. That is why myths are tied to our identity, our purpose and ultimately our dialogues with others. It is through our interactions with one who we regard as different that we are lead to a deeper understanding of our myths and those formulated about others. In our search to question old myths and promote new ones we can be lead by Raimundo Panikkar who stated "To answer the question 'Who am I?' I must ask the question 'Who are you?'"

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