Right and Wrong Interfaith Dialogue

Most attempts at interfaith dialogue are doomed from the start, as they play down real differences between religions, and appeal to a lowest common denominator. As any serious student of the world’s major religions will attest, there exist very big – indeed insurmountable – differences, and no amount of ecumenical mania will minimise them.

Consider just one example. Islam denies that Jesus died on the cross and rose again. Christianity affirms this as its central doctrine. Both cannot be right. Both cannot be true. If one is true, the other must be false.

Thus genuine dialogue must begin by taking seriously the real theological differences that exist. Sydney Catholic archbishop George Pell has a very good opinion piece in today’s Australian (September 19, 2006) on this very topic.

In an article entitled, “Talk while we can,” he begins by giving an example of a fruitful dialogue he had with a Sunni leader while on a recent trip to Lebanon. Both sides were open to the other, but were aware of differences as well.

He then offers some guidelines as to how appropriate dialogue might take place: “Let me spell out some pre-suppositions and fixed points as I see them which set the boundaries for me in the delicate, and perhaps dangerous, journey confronting Western societies. Wherever possible, dialogue and personal contacts are desirable among religious leaders, local communities, especially religious communities, and among young people. Accurate information, accurate understandings and a respect for truth, even across differences, are the only long-term bases for fruitful exchanges.”

He follows this with some much needed wisdom: “Dialogue among friends does not preclude public questioning and public criticism, which should be constructive, not designed to make a situation worse by threatening peace or inciting hatred, for example. These are the fixed points: Western democracies are at war with Islamic terrorists. Security agencies, including Australia’s, are working regularly to thwart terrorist attacks. These Islamic terrorists want a clash of civilisations, they want the West to overreact, to make mistakes and so bring this Armageddon closer. I do not believe that such a clash is inevitable, but with every massive and successful terrorist attack on the West we lurch closer to such a catastrophe.”

He continues: “Knowledge of fundamental Islamic sources, for example the Koran, is useful, perhaps indispensable, as is a basic knowledge of the history of Islamic expansion. A politically correct ignorance of all this history, except for a hostile verdict on the evil Crusades, provides no basis for an adequate understanding of the crisis in which we find ourselves.”

He then rightly points out unhelpful starting points: “Two misleading stereotypes of religion need to be abandoned. First, that all religions are basically the same: either all good or all bad. In fact, the great religions differ mightily one from the other in doctrine and in the societies they produce. Religions can be sources of beauty and goodness and they can be, through corruption, sources of poison and destruction. I do not exempt Christianity from this.”

“Second, that religions are the cause of all wars or that religion never provokes war. The worst evils of the 20th century were provoked by anti-religious men: Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot. Religion is more often used as a pretext for war or as a symbol of division, for example in the IRA’s armed struggle in Ireland, but religion can directly contribute to and has been used to justify armed conflict and aggression.”

And asking hard and honest questions is part of the process of dialogue: “Australians are entitled to an answer from me on controversial Catholic or Christian teachings. And we Australians are entitled to specific answers from our friends on aspects of Islamic teaching, for example on the Suras of the Sword 9:5 and 9:36 in the Koran. It is disappointing when such requests or criticisms are met only by accusations of ignorance or abuse, while the specific points are studiously avoided.”

He concludes by referring to the recent speech by the Pope, and the controversy surrounding it: “A major thread in the address was that violence was incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul. Pope Benedict had been an explicit public opponent of the second Iraq war and he also acknowledged that religions contain many different strains. One commentator claimed that the Pope’s explicit appeal to reason was ‘a building block towards finding a way to argue with each other without using weapons’.”

“Pope Benedict is right to stress the need for dialogue across differences, including the differences within Western civilisation. At mass, the Pope scoffed at ‘the idea of a mathematically ordered cosmos’ without any hand of God. He emphasised that ‘a reason which is deaf to the divine and which relegates religion into the realm of subcultures is incapable of entering a dialogue of culture’. This is particularly true in any dialogue with Islam, especially for our secularised Western societies.”

Amidst so much shallow thinking on interfaith dialogue, it is refreshing to hear a man lay out what must be involved in real dialogue if any hope of progress is to be made.


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