Towards a Pedagogy of Religious Encounter

  Thomas Michel, S.J.

 1. From dialogue to encounter, from encounter to the sharing of life

The title of this paper, "Towards a Pedagogy of Religious Encounter," was suggested by the editors of Concilium. However, I am quite satisfied with the title, for religious encounter is more adequate description of what the teachings of the Church have urged Christians to be involved in than what is usually understood by the term "interreligious dialogue." The latter term conjures up visions of Christian scholars and religious leaders sitting around tables with the scholars and leaders of other religions discussing high-minded topics. "Dialogue" seems to imply that what Christians ought to be doing primarily is talking with people of other faiths.

However, a study of magisterial teachings shows that what is intended by dialogue is far broader. The concept includes not only a wider range of activities than simply discussion but, more importantly, expresses 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. (1) 

These forms or expressions of dialogue have been generally elaborated as four types of interreligious encounter in the documents (2)  produced by Vatican offices as the dialogue of life, action, theological exchange and the sharing of religious experience. What is really involved are various dimensions of our life as Christians shared with the followers of other religions, a way of living with others as Christians that involves interaction at the levels of being, doing, thinking, and reflecting on one"s experience of the Divine. 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.

In the above-noted citation from the 1991 encyclical, Redemptoris Missio, "exchanges among experts" is granted a first-mentioned pride of place, but already in 1979, the Asian bishops sought to put the emphasis elsewhere. Guided by a pastoral awareness that the primary hearers toward whom magisterial teaching is directed are not theologians but rather ordinary believing Christians living in day-to-day contact with other believers, the Asian bishops gave priority to the "dialogue of life." This, they said, was "the most essential aspect of dialogue." It occurs when:
"each 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." (3) 

The shift of emphasis that occurred in the teaching of the bishops of Asia is significant. The bishops are moving the accent in dialogue away from being mainly a way "talking or discussing" to that of "a way of living together," shifting the focus from scholars and religious leaders to ordinary believers, reformulating dialogue from being an activity of the elite to understanding it as the task of grassroots Christians and their neighbors.

It took the magisterial teaching of the universal Church more than a decade to catch up with this central insight of the Asian bishops, but the Roman documents can be seen gradually to incorporate the idea, culminating in the Pope"s statement in Redemptoris Missio that "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 continued, "this will be through what is called "the dialogue of life."" (4) 

Dialogue versus proclamation, or dialogue with proclamation?

This paradigm shift has important implications for the much-controverted theological debate over "dialogue and evangelization." Since interreligious dialogue is already recognized in Church teaching as one of the integral elements of the evangelizing mission of the Church, along with "presence and witness; commitment to social development and human liberation; liturgical life, prayer and contemplation; interreligious dialogue; and finally, proclamation and catechesis," (5)  the debate can be more accurately phrased as one of determining the relationship between "dialogue and proclamation" as two authentic and irreplaceable aspects of evangelizing activity.

When dialogue is understood primarily as conversation between Christians and the followers of other faiths, the question inevitably arises: should Christians devote their efforts to preaching the Gospel or should they enter into mutual exploration of one another"s faiths? Should Christians try to discover basic commonalities in spirituality, morality, and commitment with their partners of other religions, or should they seek opportunities to proclaim those doctrinal elements which characterize and distinguish Christian faith from that of others? The debate has continued, with inconclusive results, for almost 40 years since the publication of Nostra aetate.

However, if dialogue is understood as the sharing of life at all levels among believers of various faiths, the issue is more readily resolvable. Christians are called to share that life, which sometimes means simply living together in harmony or working for reconciliation after conflicts, sometimes coming to the aid of the weakest and neediest in their midst, sometimes working together in defense and solidarity with the poor and victims of injustice, and sometimes sharing their deepest motivation for living the way they do. This motivation is the personal encounter of each with the Divine, whether that be imagined and expressed as responding to God"s Word, doing God"s will, coming into harmony with the eternal Tao, realizing the Buddha nature in oneself, or discovering one"s identity with Brahman who exists beyond all attributes and images.
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 choice is not between being a Church in dialogue or one proclaiming 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 co-habiting the same town but 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 motive force which drives and guides all their activities.

In trying to formulate in the abstract what is involved in the shared life commitment intended by the somewhat inadequate term "dialogue," it is important to keep in mind that the raw material of interreligious encounter is composed of the issues faced daily in concrete ways by Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and others who live in plural societies. Such people are not professional theologians and have not engaged in formal "dialogue" situations, but grocers, housewives, manual laborers, nurses, students, clerks and secretaries who want to live conscientiously and with faith amid the challenges that arise in the context of religious pluralism.

     My pilgrimage in dialogue

At this point, I should give an account of my own background and experience to explain where these reflections are coming from. I am a teacher and for over 30 years I have been engaged mainly in trying to introduce Christians to Islam and to introduce Muslims to Christian faith. This I have done mainly in the Southeast Asian countries of Indonesia, Philippines, and Malaysia, but increasingly in recent years, in Turkey. Very often these efforts take place in the formal educational situations of university and high school courses, but more often in informal or alternative settings of seminars, workshops, discussion groups and live-in experiences.

For several years, I have had the experience, unusual for a Catholic priest, of living and teaching in cities in Turkey where I was the only Christian, where all my students, teaching colleagues, neighbors, and friends have been Muslims. In those places, our encounters have taken place not only in the classroom, but in mosques, homes - my own or those of friends - and even in "secular" locales such as the local produce market, post office and bookshop.

When Turkish colleagues, students, or neighbors stop by to spend the evening, we do not spend most of the time discussing religion. We talk about politics, the economy, sports, carpets, television programs and films, life in Turkey, in North America (where I was born and raised), and in Indonesia (where I have lived most of my adult life.) They speak of their concerns for their children and their hopes that they obtain adequate education to find a place in the world and live in a peaceful social environment, but also that their children will interiorize and live according to the values and teachings of Islamic faith. These are topics that present themselves naturally from the common life that we are leading.

Almost always, the moment arrives when I find myself sharing what it means to me to be a Christian and when they elaborate what it means for them to follow Islam. We share our common problems, such as the need to find time for prayer and quiet reflection amidst the hectic pace of modern life. We wonder together about God, how a good and loving God would permit such wrongdoing and inequality in this world. We share our experiences of suffering and try to see what we have learned from our acquaintance with sickness, death, and failure. We ask each other what forgiveness means to us and how people can arrive at the seemingly impossible task of actually forgiving each other.

Could anyone claim that the hours that my Muslim friends and I have spent discussing the economy and politics were "merely dialogue", whereas those minutes we spent trying to put into words the place of God in our lives were "proclamation," or for them, the Islamic equivalent, "da"wah"? The reality is that dialogue and proclamation can never be neatly detached from one another in actual life. It is all part of one thing, a life lived together. In a shared life, we are all constantly influencing one another and learning from each other, all growing and being enriched by encountering the acts and attitudes which God produces, through our respective faiths, in each.

     The pedagogy of religious encounter: two stories

Once, in Izmir, a colleague invited me to his home because his grandfather was dying. When I arrived, the grandfather was in bed, very weak, but still conscious. The family was in the other corner of the room, drinking tea and conversing in low tones. Two or three of the family members - the grandmother, one of the sons, a niece or nephew - were always at the bedside repeating over and over with the grandfather the Islamic profession of faith: "There is no god but Allah (The God)". After a while, other family members would replace those at the bedside, but the prayer went on continually, even after the grandfather fell asleep. I learned that the most common Muslim prayer for a happy death states: "O God, when I reach the moment of death I pray that "There is no god but The God" will be on my lips." During the night, the grandfather died in his sleep, with his wife and three grown children at the bedside repeating, in his name, "There is no god but Allah." I learned more that evening about the Islamic attitude toward death than I had during my years of doctoral studies in Islamic thought.

Another example that remains with me is a "dialogue" I had with several Muslim women whom I never met. I was teaching an introduction to Christian theology at the Theology Faculty of Selcuk University in Konya, Turkey, the city of the beloved Sufi saint and poet, "Mevlana", Jalal al-Din Rumi. I had a small apartment in a working-class neighborhood and was known and well accepted as the "rahip," the Qur"anic word (rahib) for a Christian monk. One afternoon shortly after I began my teaching at the university, I returned home to find a man sitting on the steps in front of my apartment waiting for me. He said that his wife had stopped by earlier in the day but found the door locked. I said, yes, I usually lock my door when I am not at home. He said that I needn"t bother, because the women of the neighborhood were always around and would know if anyone who didn"t belong tried to get in.

I realized that to them locking my door was an indication that I didn"t trust my neighbors, so I never locked my door again during my stay in Konya. Often, I would return from the university to find that someone had anonymously left a covered bowl with rice and eggplant, börek, or a few kebabs on the counter. After finishing the food, I used to wash the bowl and leave it in the same place and in a few days it would disappear. Some days later, I would receive another gift of food. Other days I would return after work and find that my clothes had been washed, floors swept, bed linens changed, shirts ironed and folded etc. I never saw the person or persons who performed this service, although I presume that it was done by women of the neighborhood.

This went on for six months until, at the end of the semester, it was time for me to leave Konya and return to Rome. I told one of the men who had stopped by to wish me a safe journey that I had a final request. I mentioned all that the neighborhood women had done and asked if I could meet them to thank them for their generous help over the course of the previous months. He said, "You don"t have to meet them. They didn"t do this for you; they did it for God, and God who sees all that we do will reward them. The Qur"an teaches that rahipler (monks) are one of the reasons why Christians are the closest community in friendship to Muslims, so it is an act of worship ("ibadah) for us to treat you with kindness."

Neither the man who said this nor the unknown (to me) women who worshiped God by their hospitality were highly trained in the religious sciences, and yet they taught me the important connection between worship of God and generous service to "the stranger in your midst." These women, who epitomize for me Jesus" instructions on the Sermon on the Mount to perform one"s charity without letting the left hand know what the right is doing, carried on a genuine dialogue with me, teaching me by deed rather than by word a key aspect of the Islamic way of life. A shared life among believers in God can take many forms.

     Mutual enrichment

Have my encounters with believing, practicing Muslims enriched my life? I can testify without hesitation that they certainly have. Has God used these encounters to make me a better Christian? Again, I can say that God has done so; the encounters have been a great grace. This conviction gives me hope, because if God has worked so powerfully in my life through my encounters with Muslims, I can confidently trust that the same Divine Spirit has been effectively at work among my Muslim friends through their encounters with me. Time and again, Muslims have confirmed how much it has meant to them to have a believing Christian living among them. They remain Muslims, as I remain a Christian, but none of us remains unchanged. We are spiritually richer than before the encounter.

The benefits of dialogue as shared life are not limited to mutual enrichment. Only by living together can people overcome the prejudices, caricatures, and stereotypes that are handed down from one generation to the next and are often reinforced by the communications media. Dialogue provides believers with an opportunity to examine together those universal human tendencies towards exclusivity, chauvinism, hatred, and violence which can infect religious identity and behavior. In dialogue it also becomes clear how much closer religious believers of all faiths are to one another than they are to those who promote the dominant market ideology of competitive wealth, consumerism, and materialism.

Some Christians would reduce the benefit of dialogue to a better understanding of the other"s faith and reject the possibility of any real mutual enrichment, as though that would imply something lacking in Christian faith. This is not the view of Pope John Paul II. The Pope has repeatedly emphasized that dialogue should lead to the enrichment of all, Christians as well as their neighbors of other faiths. On his first pastoral visit after his election as Pope, the Pope instructed the Christians of Ankara to "consider every day the profound roots of the faith in God in whom your Muslim fellow citizens also believe, to draw from it the principle of collaboration with a view to human progress, to emulation in doing good..." (6) 

Even more clearly, speaking to Muslims in Brussels, the Pope exhorted "all believers, Christian and Muslim, 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 went on to say, in the same talk, that (It is this type of mutual emulation which 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." (7) 

Religious encounter enriches both Christians and the followers of other religions when it is carried out unselfconsciously in the context of shared life. This should not be surprising, for when those who are giving their lives to God through the world"s various religions extend their daily worship of that God to include being, acting, discussing, and reflecting with followers of other faiths, the most active participant in the encounter is always God"s Holy Spirit.

1John Paul II, Redemptoris Missio, 57.
2Secretariat for non Christians, The Attitude of the Church Towards the Followers of Other Religions: Reflections and Orientations on Dialogue and Mission, 1984, par. 28-35, and Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and the Congregation for Evangelization of Peoples, Dialogue and Proclamation: Reflection and Orientations on Interreligious Dialogue and the Proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ," 1991, par. 42.
3Federation of Asian Bishops" Conferences, "The Second Bishops" Institute for Interreligious Affairs (BIRA II)," 1979, in For All the Peoples of Asia, G. Rosales and C. Arevalo, eds., vol. 1, Manila: Claretian, 1991.
4Redemptoris Missio, par. 56-57.
5Mission and Dialogue, par. 13, Dialogue and Proclamation, par. 2.
6John Paul II, Homily at Mass, Ankara, 26 November 1979
7John Paul II, Address to Muslims, Brussels, 19 May 1985. Many other statements of the Pope to the same effect could be cited, e.g., his address to religious leaders of various faiths in Jakarta, 10 October 1989, to the Muslim youth in Casablanca on 19 August 1985, and in the encyclical Redemptoris Missio (par. 56) of 7 December 1990.



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