Dialogue of religions

Pope Francis waves to a young child held out to him by a crowd member during the general audience at the Vatican, October 23, 2019. (Photo by Reuters)

In his book "The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order," Samuel Huntington related with great clarity that "gradual, inexorable and fundamental changes are occurring in the balance of power among civilizations and the power of the West compared to that of other civilizations continues to decline. The most significant increases in power are accruing and will continue to accrue to Asian civilizations. These shifts among civilizations are leading and will lead to a revival and increased cultural assertiveness of non–Western societies and to their increasing rejection of Western culture."

The 21st century will reportedly be Asia’s century, just as the 20th was the American century and the 19th, the European century. By 2050, China is expected to be the largest economy in the world and India, the third largest. With regard to religions, Huntington says, "the late 20th century saw a resurgence of religions across the world. This resurgence has involved the intensification of religious consciousness and the rise of fundamentalist movements. It has thus reinforced the differences among religions."

At the onset of the Third Millennium, the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC) make a positive and significant contribution to religious harmony. It calls for a new paradigm of Christianity grounded in an authentic Asian theology and centred on acceptance of religious pluralism. Asian bishops acknowledge that no particular religion can lay the claim to being the norm for all others. "As religious pilgrims, we must walk together on the path of dialogue towards harmony," they say. When a religion lays absolute claims to truth, aggressive militancy and divisive proselytism follow and in their wake bitter religious conflicts.

Neither Christianity nor any other religion has a monopoly over truth and salvation, affirms the Jesuit theologian Sebastian Painadath (FABC's Theology of Dialogue, p.197). Yet, "a crypto colonial exclusivist attitude still lurks in the hearts of many Christians not only in the West but also in Asia and Africa because they have inherited it from the West and seem to hold to it with more enthusiasm than critical sense" (Resource Manual for Catholics in Asia, FABC p.280.) The late Archbishop Angelo Fernandes characterized this exclusivist approach in two words, "ignorance and arrogance."

Inter-religious dialogue implies a new way of reflecting upon the world and its meaning. A prerequisite for such a dialogue is that the parties involved should have an open mind which respects differences and pluralism. All forms of exclusiveness have to be shed. Implicit is the end of exclusivist and triumphalistic attitudes, notions of superiority and "chosenness”, that one's religion is the final and the only that deserves absolute and final status.

"The increase in the number of Church movements engaged in aggressive and militant evangelization (understood in the very narrow sense of the word) is certainly a cause for concern for our brothers and sisters of other faiths. Some of the less-than-ethical means used in these proselytizing efforts by members of these movements make one wonder if they are really followers of Christ.” (Resource Manual, p.286).

The Asian bishops at the FABC level are concerned not merely in giving training to a few experts but to prepare all the faithful for interreligious dialogue, which is the new way of being the Church today. Hence, FABC proposes that all Catholics be given the possibility to widen and deepen their knowledge of the different Asian faiths and theologies. It is important, it says, "that Christian parents, catechists and educationists should teach their children about God's love for believers of other religions and about the many good and holy values in these religions…Schools should become places where interreligious understanding may be furthered."

It adds, "basic knowledge about the beliefs and practices of other religions taken from reliable and objective sources should form part of the catholic catechetical training. Catholic parishes, too, should foster inter-religious understanding and fellowship because the prime agent of this new mission in dialogue is the parish. Dialogue brings to the local churches in Asia openness to the integration into the mainstream of cultures. Christians grow in genuine love for their neighbours of other faiths and the latter learn to love their Christian neighbours. Only in this way can interreligious dialogue become a reality at the grassroot level of our churches."

FABC asks Episcopal Conferences to develop a formation process for clergy, religious and laity towards the formation of persons of dialogue who would be sensitive to other faiths and persuasions, and courses on religions outside Christianity should be included and strengthened in the curriculum of the seminaries and other houses of formation...Collaboration, partnership, working together is imperative for the survival of mankind. Inter-religious dialogue and cooperation are not an optional task to be pursued in one's spare time. It is integral to one's faith and has to be a preoccupation of every religion to be promoted by every religious system.

“This collaboration should not wait until times of crisis or only wherever communal and inter-religious tensions prevail. Rather, they should be integral to all programmes and efforts of service to society. All human rights and human promotion programmes ought to have an inter-religious component built into the system. These programmes should eventually become identified not so much as Christian services but as inter-religious programmes run by multi-religious organizations and for the benefit of a multi-religious clientele."

The FABC has delineated a clear and insightful doctrine on inter-religious dialogue and cooperation. The Church in India and elsewhere in Asia is expected to implement it effectively. In this age, as noted in the title of a recent book, humankind is ultimately faced with two choices, Dialogue or Death. May the leaders of every religion and their followers work together for the benefit of all and on behalf of justice and peace. This is the paramount challenge of our times.

(The writer is a former Union minister)

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