Creating a Culture of Dialogue:
Methodology of Interreligious Dialogue

  Thomas Michel, S.J.

How do we create a culture of dialogue in our religious Institutes? The topic presumes two more fundamental questions: what do we mean by dialogue,? and what do we mean by a culture of dialogue?. The idea of interreligious dialogue seems obvious, but it is worth taking the time to see what the Church is intending when it says that we should be involved in this dialogue. Too often, people regard dialogue in a very restricted sense, but what the Church intends is something much wider.

People sometimes think of dialogue as situations in which religious leaders and scholars sitting down together, making pleasant, optimistic statements, choosing their words guardedly, trying to put a positive twist on controverted questions, and carefully avoiding any topic that might cause friction or hard feelings. In short, they are thinking of something akin to an interreligious tea party. If this is the idea we have, it is no wonder that many Christians and followers of other religions are suspicious of the value of such encounters, which they might well consider a waste of time, a luxury that our busy schedules cannot afford, an exercise in public relations, or even a compromise on matters of faith.

If this were what dialogue was really about, it would be hard to understand why the Catholic Church, beginning with the Second Vatican Council and developed over the past 25 years in the consistent teaching of Pope John Paul II, has been so insistent in urging Christians to be commited to interreligious dialogue. For example, we can hear the very powerful statement of the Pope in his 1991 encyclical, Redemptoris Missio (par. 56-57), about interreligious encounter: "Each member of the faithful and all Christian communities are called to practice dialogue, although not always to the same degree or in the same way", "For most,- the Pope continues,- this will be through what is called the dialogue of life.". This is a strong statement. Does the Pope really mean that each member of the faithful, and all Christian communities - including all Catholic religious Institutes - should in some way be involved in the practice of dialogue?

Obviously, the Holy Father is not speaking of tea parties. The Pope is proposing that dialogue with the followers of other religions should be a characteristic of the mission in the world that Jesus entrusted to the community of his disciples. Just as our following of Christ should include daily prayer and worship of God, a special concern for the poor and victims of oppression and injustice, care for the sick and aged, theological reflection on the significance of our Christian faith in each cultural context, proclaiming our faith by sharing "the reasons for the hope that is in us" with all those who are seeking truth, and communicating our faith to new generations of Christian disciples, so also one of the basic elements of our Christian mission is the encounter with people of other faiths. These are all aspects of the one mission which Christ has given us.

One might say that dialogue is the other side of the obligation to proclaim our faith in this world. There are millions of people in our world who are seeking God, who are looking for a way to live in accord with God's will, who want to find meaning, a reason for living in their daily situations. We have a duty to share with them the Christian faith that has given direction to our lives, that inspires us and gives us the courage to love, that sustains us and gives us reason for hope in moments of failure and desperation.

But our world also presents us with many other millions of people, who are good and honest and self-sacrificing, who are not searching for God, precisely because they have already found and daily encounter the Divine in and through the religion they already follow. Through the practice of their own religion - be it Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism or the Traditional Religion of various continents - God's Spirit is guiding them, enabling them to pray and worship, teaching them to live in accord with God's moral will, and inspiring them often to reach the heights of self-sacrifice, generosity and service of others, and enabling many to plumb the depths of spirituality and mystical experience. They love their religion. It means as much to them as our own Christian faith means to us.

Do we have anything to say to such people? Do we have anything to learn from them? Can we be enriched by the testimonies of their lives and their faith? Are there possibilities of working together with them for the good of all? Or do we simply turn our backs and wash our hands of them because they are convinced of the rightness of their religious path and committed to following its teachings and hence are not interested in becoming Christians? The Church teaches us that we have much to communicate and much to learn. This whole world of positive relations with the followers of other religions is summed up in the word "dialogue". Already in 1979, in his first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, Pope John Paul had this to say:
What we have just said must also be activity for coming closer together with the representatives of the non-Christian religions, an activity expressed through dialogue, contacts, prayer in common, investigation of the treasures of human spirituality, in which, as we know well, the members of these religions are not lacking. Does it not sometimes happen that the firm belief of the followers of the non-Christian religions - a belief that is also an effect of the Spirit of truth operating outside the visible confines of the Mystical Body - can make Christians ashamed at being often themselves so disposed to doubt concerning the truths revealed by God and proclaimed by the Church and so prone to relax moral principles and open the way to ethical permissiveness. It is a noble thing to have a predisposition for understanding every person, analyzing every system and recognizing what is right; this does not at all mean losing certitude about one's own faith or weakening the principles of morality...(RH, 6).

This dense paragraph is packed with advice on which we can build in our efforts to create a culture of dialogue. The Holy Father emphasizes the importance of common prayer, coming together before the Source and Final Goal of our religious journey. He notes that the benefits of dialogue are not only for the Other, but also for us Christians. Cannot the firm belief of the followers of other religions often make us ashamed of our own doubts and laxity? He stresses that the belief of others is an effect of the Spirit of truth. He underlines the nobility of the commitment to dialogue, of being open to understand others, analyze their belief systems, and recognize all that is good in them. None of this, concludes the Pope, involves losing confidence in the beauty and truth of our own Christian faith.

2. Sharing life

When one examines the teachings of the Church about dialogue, it is clear that we are asked to commit ourselves to something much broader than mere "talk" with the followers of the world's religions. Dialogue includes not only a wide range of activities but, more importantly, demands a fresh existential approach to the followers of other religious traditions. In his encyclical Redemptoris Missio, Pope John Paul II indicates just how broad a compass dialogue embraces.
A vast field lies open to dialogue, which can assume many forms and expressions: from exchanges between experts in religious traditions or official representatives of those traditions, to cooperation for integral development and the safeguarding of religious values; and from a sharing of their respective spiritual experiences to the so-called "dialogue of life," through which believers of different religions bear witness before each other in daily life to their own human and spiritual values, and help each other to live according to those values in order to build a more just and fraternal society (RM, 59).

In the documents produced by Vatican offices, these forms of dialogue have been generally elaborated as four facets of interreligious encounter: the dialogue of life, cooperation in social concerns, theological exchange and the sharing of religious experience. What is involved are various dimensions of our life as Christians which we share with the followers of other religions. It means a way of living with others as Christians that involves interaction at the levels of being (dialogue of life), doing (cooperation), studying (exchange of views), and reflecting on one's experience of the Divine (sharing religious experience). In the Church's vision of life shared by Christians and the followers of other religions, talking or discoursing plays a role, as it does in all forms of human life, but discussion must not dominate, nor must the shared life denoted by the term "dialogue" be limited by or reduced to formal occasions and deliberations.

Once we see the broad extent of what the Church means by dialogue, we can move beyond the restrictive notion that dialogue is only for experts or religious leaders. The illiterate farmer or housewife who has been blessed with a strong Christian faith but has not had the opportunity to engage in advanced religious studies is called to approach his or her neighbors of other faiths with a dialogical spirit. Such Christians need not feel that they are constrained to discuss subtle theological points, but they are called to live with respect and openness for their neighbors, to share the joys and crises and sorrows of life with others, and to teach their children that God also has great love for faithful Muslims, Jews, Buddhists etc. This is what the Pope means when he says that each Christian, and every Christian community should be involved in dialogue, although not all in the same way.

For most Christians, as for most of the members of our religious Institutes, that form of shared life to which we are called is often termed the "dialogue of life". Already in 1979, the Asian bishops called this "the most essential aspect of dialogue", and they said that it occurs when:
"Each [the Christian and the follower of another religion] gives witness to the other concerning the values they have found in their faith, and through the daily practice of brotherhood, helpfulness, open-heartedness and hospitality, each show themselves to be a God-fearing neighbor. The true Christian and their neighbors of other faiths offer to a busy world values arising from God's message when they revere the elderly, conscientiously rear the young, care for the sick and the poor in their midst, and work together for social justice, welfare, and human rights".
The dialogue of life implies much more than peaceful coexistence. It means that we live deeply our Christian faith amidst believers of other religions and show by the way we act and treat others the values which we have discovered in the course of our pilgrimage as disciples of the Lord. Similarly, our neighbors of other faiths show us, not so much by word as by deed and attitude, the values they seek to follow in their own religious path. This might be called a dialogue of "mutual witness".

In real life, there is no conflict between dialogue and proclaiming the Gospel. Sisters working in clinics in Libya, for example, are proclaiming the Gospel value of care for the sick at the same time they are in dialogue with patients and neighbors. Mother Teresa and many like her give eloquent testimony to what the Gospel is really about when they offer the poor an environment in which they can die with dignity. Yet Mother Teresa often said that she prayed that "Christians become better Christians, Hindus become better Hindus, and Muslims better Muslims".

In this light, the focal question is not whether the Church should be proclaiming the Gospel or engaged in dialogue, but rather whether Christians are actually sharing life with their neighbors of other faiths. The basic distinction is not between being a Church in dialogue or one that proclaims the Gospel, but rather the option of being a Church that is following the Spirit's lead to partake humanly in life with others, and thus constantly engaged in dialogue, witness, and proclamation, or else that of being a Church that is closed in on itself and exists in a self-imposed ghetto with little concern for and involvement with people of other faiths with whom Christians share culture, history, citizenship, and common human destiny.

When people of various faiths live together - not simply cohabiting the same town but sharing life together - the question of dialogue or proclamation doesn't arise. When they work, study, struggle, celebrate, and mourn together and face the universal crises of injustice, illness, and death as one, they don't spend most of their time talking about doctrine. Their focus is on immediate concerns of survival, on taking care of the sick and needy, on communicating cherished values to new generations, on resolving problems and tensions in productive rather than in destructive ways, on reconciling after conflicts, on seeking to build more just, humane, and dignified societies. When believers are actively cooperating in such activities, at certain rare but privileged moments, they also express what is deepest in their lives and hearts, that is, their respective faiths, which are the source of strength and inspiration that forms the driving force that guides all their activities.

3. A culture of dialogue

What does it mean to create a "culture of dialogue"? I understand the phrase to mean that when a group of believers has dialogue as an intrinsic part of their religious commitment, whereby a person's very participation in such a group includes an openness and willingness to engage in dialogue, a culture of dialogue exists in that group. This is not something merely theoretical, but has effects in one's choice of activities, use of time and funds, and planning and projects for the future. It results in a community of believers where outsiders can presume that such a group will be open to efforts at dialogue, where one can point to concrete evidence of the group's involvement in dialogue. Dialogue becomes one of the characteristics that identify such communities and movements.

Among Christians, I can note as examples two Catholic lay movements that are well known to all of us, the community of S. Egidio and the Focolare Movement. Part of the ethos of these movements is their readiness to take initiatives in the area of dialogue and to participate in the initiatives of others. One takes on this susceptibility to dialogue by the very fact of belonging to S. Egidio or Focolare. I mention these two groups, not because they are unique in achieving a culture of dialogue, but because living in Rome we are all aware of their efforts, programs and activities. Many other groups of Christians throughout the world have succeeded, in their local situations, in creating a similar culture of dialogue.

We should not think that a culture of dialogue is unique to Christian communities, movements, and organizations. In India, the various Gandhian movements were already in the 1940s among the first to commit themselves to an interreligious approach to nation-building and communal harmony. Among Buddhists, the Tokyo-based Rissho Kosei-kai organization has for many years now given an impressive testimony of their willingness to promote, support (also financially) and participate in dialogue among people of various religions. Among Muslims, one can point to the movement associated with the name of the Turkish scholar Fethullah Gülen that consists of Muslims inspired by the late Kurdish scholar, Said Nursi. They have been especially active in promoting "Abrahamic" dialogue between Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Also, the American Muslim Society (the former "Black Muslims"), now under the leadership of Imam Warith Deen Muhammad, has built a strong record of interreligious involvement to the point where they can be said to have created an irreversible "culture of dialogue."

In the presence of so many Catholic religious Institutes, I do not dare to single out the efforts of some that have taken seriously the task of building a culture of dialogue among the members of their Institute, for I would inevitably be neglecting other important examples. However, while acknowledging that other Institutes have often done more and done it better and earlier, I would like to take the speaker's privilege of noting how my own Institute, the Society of Jesus, in its 1995 General Congregation, has committed itself to make the culture of dialogue a characteristic of our Institute. These are the words of the Congregation's Decree Five on "Our Mission and Interreligious Dialogue":
The Jesuit heritage of creative response to the call of the Spirit in concrete situations of life is an incentive to develop a culture of dialogue in our approach to believers of other religions. This culture of dialogue should become a distinctive characteristic of our Society, sent into the whole world to labor for the greater glory of God and the help of human persons.

4. Patiently creating a culture of dialogue on the basis of trust

Such affirmations are important as statements of intention, but one does not build a culture of dialogue by decree. It is a slow process of study, planning, pastoral decisions and choices, communication among members of the Institute and, most of all, a question of changing attitudes; I must confess that my own Institute, despite the good intentions expressed in our decree, is still moving slowly but, I hope, steadily on the path toward creating such a culture.

I believe that the first quality needed is a fruit of the Spirit: patience. Like any serious and worthwhile activity, dialogue is not forged overnight and cannot be accomplished by dilettantes. There is much distrust to overcome. Christians can make a long list of wrongs that we have suffered at the hands of the followers of other religions. This includes still unforgotten (and perhaps unforgiven) wrongs of the distant past, as well as those that might have occurred even last month. This is especially the case in those parts of the world where Christians are a minority.

Moreover, we must be aware that the followers of other religions such as Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, have their own lists of wrongs perpetrated against them by Christians. Whether they be the medieval Crusades, European pogroms culminating in the Holocaust, the social indignities, land grabbing and theft of resources that occurred in the Colonial Period, the history of missionary activity that too often sought to spread the Gospel by distorting and denigrating other religions. None of this has been forgotten by the followers of other religions. I believe that the burden of history is not only the most difficult obstacle to overcome in building dialogue, but moving beyond that burden is one of the most valuable hoped-for fruits of dialogue.

Given this sad burden of history that we all bear, we must not be surprised that both Christians, including members of our Institutes, and our neighbors of other religions might show an instinctive resistance to dialogue. Christians may feel that dialogue means associating with the enemy, weakening the social position of Christian minorities, compromising with error, or a naive and willful blindness to problems. The followers of other religions might regard dialogue as the new "soft-sell" face of proselytism, a way of insinuating ourselves into other communities to undermine their faith.

Slowly, and through much hard work, trust must be built. We have to be convinced ourselves and to convince our partners that we are not prisoners of the past, that we can live together and work together better than we have done previously, that individuals and communities can change their attitudes and, above all, that God desires love and mutual acceptance and respect among those who come before the Divine in obedience and worship. Is this not what the Second Vatican Council proposed with regard to Muslims in its decree Nostra aetate?
Since in the course of centuries not a few conflicts and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Muslims, this sacred synod urges all to forget the past and to work sincerely for mutual understanding, to preserve and to promote together for the benefit of all social justice and moral values and peace and freedom.
In other words, while acknowledging the many conflicts of the past, the Council urges Christians and Muslims to move beyond this sad history, urging us to undertake a common mission "for the benefit of all" in four key areas of modern life: social justice, moral values, peace, and freedom.

After over 30 years of involvement in dialogue, I can testify, as I hope to do in the workshop this afternoon, that once trust has been established, much good can be achieved. In the final analysis, dialogue and shared life are not so much goals that we want as actions of the Holy Spirit for which we permit ourselves to be used. The Spirit is able to bring out the best in us and the best in our neighbors of other religions, and even to use our weaknesses and limitations of knowledge and strength, to accomplish things beyond our expectation.

In dialogue, we find ourselves enriched by others' experience of God, and not infrequently we hear the testimonies of our friends of other religions that they too have felt themselves enriched. Humanly, we all have a lot to learn from one another. Pope John Paul II saw mutual enrichment as one of the deeply spiritual fruits of dialogue. On his pastoral visit to Belgium in 1986, he exhorted "all believers... to come to know one another better, to engage in dialogue in order to find peaceful ways of living together and mutually enriching one another." He continued: "This type of mutual emulation can benefit the whole society, especially those who find themselves most in need of justice, consolation and hope - in a word, those in need of reasons for living."

Practically speaking, what can our Institutes do to prepare our members to build a culture of dialogue? Many Institutes have instituted short courses on the religions of those with whom our men and women live and work. Such courses can help to dispel prejudices, broaden our understanding of dialogue and its place in a theology of religions, examine and discuss the problems of communal living, and explore ways in which our apostolates can be characterized by a spirit of dialogue.

Some Institutes have appointed someone on the General or Provincial staff to coordinate, oversee, and encourage the communitarian project of creating a culture of dialogue. I think that this is important, because a culture of dialogue won't come about on its own. We have to work at it, and someone has to monitor the process to see if we are giving more than lip service to the ideal. As one such staff person, I find that my main tasks consist of:
1) insuring that all members of our Institute get adequate preparation in the religions of those with whom they live and work. This means providing courses, workshops, lectures, and visits for young members in formation, as well as offering opportunities in ongoing formation for "formed" members in terms of sabbaticals, summer courses etc. Obviously, it is much easier for "big" Institutes to do this on their own, but this is a field in which USG/UISG could pool resources to promote cooperative projects among our Institutes.
2) helping those already involved in interreligious apostolates to communicate with each other by bringing them together periodically. Such encounters are occasions for them to share their difficulties, frustrations, and uncertainties, but also to inspire each other by initiatives that have been tried in one place and might also work well elsewhere.
3) offering advice to superiors on how and where they might send individuals for specialized studies. Specialization in interreligious fields is not part of the charism of every Institute, but encouraging individuals interested in this can be a service to the Institute, to the Church, and to society at large.
4) generally keeping track of our members and institutions involved in this aspect of our mission. The dedicated work of charismatic individuals will have greater impact on shaping a culture of dialogue when it is integrated into the mission and witness of the whole Institute.

It would be unrealistic for smaller Institutes, strapped for personnel, to think of having a full-time staff person for dialogue. But each of our institutes could appoint someone on the general staff who would be responsible, as part of their duties, to keep an eye on ways to build a culture of dialogue, much as others oversee apostolic areas like education, justice, ministry. Let us not forget that probably the most effective expressions of dialogue are not found in great projects, but in the day-to-day work of ordinary people who bring a desire to share life into unheralded surroundings. In our Institutes, parish priests, nursing sisters in hospitals and clinics, teachers and catechists, those who work on the portineria and serve the poor all have an indispensable role to play in creating a culture of dialogue. Such people contribute much to make dialogue a characteristic of our Christian community. By reflecting deeply on the Pope's words, "Each member of the faithful and all Christian communities are called to practice dialogue," our Institutes can be guided by the Spirit to see the specific contribution that each can make.



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