THE BLOG

Interreligious Dialogue: The Political and Theological

04/21/2015 12:39 pm ET | Updated Jun 21, 2015

Our world has always been characterized by religious diversity, both across and within religious traditions. Human beings have held different beliefs and engaged in different ritual practices for as long as we know. Diversity has not suddenly become a new characteristic of our present age. What is new about our religious diversity is the fact that it is rapidly becoming a feature of many societies which were religiously homogenous or where diversity was largely internal to a particular religion. Our awareness of other religions has never been as great as it is today.

The religious map of the United States has been and continues to be radically transformed by the opening of its doors to immigrants from Asia. Diana Eck, Harvard University, Professor of Religion, describes us as the world's most religiously diverse nation. Today, people of other religions are our neighbors, friends, colleagues and competitors.

We cannot think of the religious diversity in our communities as a temporary phenomenon. We are growing in the realization, some more slowly than others, that this diversity is here to stay. There are no realistic prospects, at least on this side of reality, that human beings will be brought under a single tradition. Our modern era is witness to a new vitality and resurgence in the world's religions. These have emerged from colonialism with a renewed sense of purpose and universal relevance. They are ready to share their insights and to participate in the shaping of our world. I mention this fact because our response to diversity depends, in part, on whether we see diversity as an unwelcome problem to be overcome or as an opportunity for enrichment, growth and even religious revitalization. We live or we will all live in communities that are diverse and, for all that we can see, determined to stay so.

Each day, the news makes us increasingly aware of fear, hatred and intolerance in our global and national communities, directed at other religions. Many believe that faithfulness and commitment to their own traditions require rejection of other faiths and their practitioners. All of our traditions, at some time and in some place, have been the objects of hate and all have been employed to justify hate. This is a major problem for people of all traditions.

Religious diversity presents us with new challenges and opportunities that may be described, broadly, as political and theological. These are interrelated, but, for convenience, we will discuss them separately. Let us consider first, the political.

All of our religious traditions, in addition to what they teach about individual human destiny, also have a social vision of the ideal human community characterized by justice, peace, prosperity and freedom from violence, exploitation and fear.

Any religious tradition which is today concerned about the social order and its transformation is challenged to reach across historical borders, find common ground and values with people of other faiths and strive together to confront and overcome the causes of human suffering and conflict. Our hopes for just and peaceful communities will only be realized together or not at all. Interreligious deliberations and action are not a luxury for the starry-eyed among us, but have become a real and practical necessity in our communities of diversity. In the task of community building, we must be ready to labor with women and men of every faith and with those who have none. "No religion, " as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel reminded us, " is an island." No tradition can " go it alone."

Political scientist, Ashutosh Varshney examined the factors that might explain what caused certain cities in India to remain peaceful and others to explode violently when Hindu-Muslim conflicts broke out. Varshney discovered that the explanation may be found in what he terms "networks of engagement," or associations between religiously diverse communities. Where these relationships were strong and involved participation in common activities, such communities were able to avoid the violence and hostility that ravaged other neighboring communities. Such relationships, however, are not easy to develop after communities erupt in tension and violence and when mistrust and suspicion are widespread. We must invest our energies in building relationships as a long-term strategy. As one of my friends put it, "dialogue is not an ambulance service; it is a public health program."

History teaches us that fear, hatred and violence often have roots in ignorance and religious illiteracy. Dialogue across religious boundaries will and should not eliminate differences, but will go a long way in removing fear and in building trust, confidence and friendships Friends can disagree, and have differences of opinion, but they do so as friends who share a common humanity and a value and respect for each other.

The political arguments for interreligious dialogue and cooperation are much easier to articulate and to describe. In the interdependent context of our lives, it is not difficult to appreciate the necessity for religious dialogue and cooperation in Iraq, India or Illinois as a preventative measure. How about the theological arguments?

The political justification for interreligious dialogue must be complemented by theological justifications, if we are to move beyond necessity to a deeper value for people of other religious traditions.

Religious traditions often present themselves as self-sufficient entities, with little or no need for other traditions. Other traditions may be represented as entirely wrong or only partially true. Such theological arguments do not provide spaces for mutually enriching interreligious dialogue. These lead, at best, to "tolerance" of neighbors of other traditions and a reliance on political arguments. Religious diversity is better-secured, and interreligious dialogue more meaningful, when theological arguments enrich the political arguments. Without theological arguments, other traditions may have instrumental value for us; we are content as long as they maintain the peace and do not disrupt our lives. We have no reasons, however, to celebrate their presence among us.

We begin to think theologically about religious diversity when we ask, not about the political value of others, but about their religious value. What is the religious value of having a world in which there are Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Jews, Christians, Sikhs Jains and practitioners of indigenous religions? How is our world diminished in the absence of any one of these? Do we have a religious need for each other? As a Hindu, what is my theological value to you? Does it matter to you religiously that there are Hindus in the world? Would it make any difference to you if there were no Hindus? Such questions are not easy ones to answer, but they are certainly among the most important ones that we can ask today in the context of our encounter with people of other religions. Each tradition will have to pursue these questions in its own distinctive ways.

Perhaps there is a place where we can all start. We can all start by acknowledging that the ultimate in our traditions, whether spoken of as God or Truth, is beyond the scope of all words and symbols and never fully grasped in the finite human mind. The Hindu tradition speaks of God as the One "from which all words, along with the mind turn back, having failed to grasp." Thomas Aquinas would agree. "He knows God best," wrote Aquinas, "who acknowledges that whatever he thinks or says falls short of what God really is." No intellectual, no theological, no iconic representation is complete. What does this mean for us? While our traditions are precious to us, we can only profess our commitments with humility, with reverence for people of other faiths, and with openness to the possibility of learning from and being enriched by them. Admitting the limits of our understanding is not limiting. It opens for us the possibility of valuing and learning from the distinctive insights of other religious traditions. This is not a small theological step; it is a significant one in transforming our interreligious relationships.

I leave you then with two questions: What is the religious value of people of other traditions to you? What reason does your tradition give, if any, for learning from people of other traditions?