INTER-RELIGIOUS DIALOGUE VIS-À-VIS FAITH IN CHRIST
Dr. Ishanand Vempeny
I. DIALOGAL APPROACH TO OTHER RELIGIONS
In a situation of religious pluralism as in India, inter-religious dialogue is of paramount importance. With our unenviable past of communal squabbles, rivalry and riots, it is natural for us to wish for cooperation among the various religions. Indeed, in today’s world the problem should not be between this religion and that religion, but between religion and irreligion, between dharma and adharma. If religions exhaust all their energies in inter-religious rivalry, the anti-religious forces may do immense harm to the fundamental human values which all the religions wish to protect. Besides, no religion is an adequate response to the basic religious drives in man but rather to their partial fulfillment, and so inter-religious dialogue can enrich and complement each religion in man’s perennial quest for the Absolute Truth, Absolute Love and Absolute Bliss.
1. Dialogal Approach
Before Vatican II the approach of Western theology had been, by and large, non-contextual. This theology, to a great extent, approached other religions as objects without getting into the experiential and commitment dimensions of other religions. These aspects of religion can be illustrated through an example. A collegian said in an inter-religious meeting: “My mother may be ill-mannered and ugly, but no other person can be her adequate substitute. Islam is my mother.” How shall we interpret such a standpoint? The collegian admits that his mother, in the eyes of an “impartial” observer, may be ill-mannered and ugly. He might have come to know this by comparing his mother with other women. But his filial commitment establishes an irreplaceable relation between him and her, and his filial love makes him see her imperfections in a very different light from the one in which an impartial observer would see them. He therefore wants others to know that unless they understand and experience, from his own point of view, his loyalty to Islam, they would not be able to appreciate what his religion means to him.
The Post-Vat. II official Church documents and the authoritative statements of national and international theological conferences and seminars on inter-religious dialogue are encouraging, enlightening and forward-looking. The Church had said, through the council of Florence, that “no one remaining outside the Catholic Church, not only pagans, but also Jews, heretics or schismatics, can become partakers of eternal life” (ND. 1005). The same Church after a little more than five centuries could say through Vat. II: “And so the Church has this exhortation for her sons: prudently and lovingly through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, and in witness to the Christian faith and life, acknowledge, preserve and promote the spiritual and moral good, as well as the socio-cultural values found among them” (NA 2, Cf. LG. 16). When we read these two documents we are reminded of the presence of the Spirit of God in the Church to interpret the revealed truths in a way relevant and challenging to the people of different epochs.
As in the immediate Post-Vatican period even today there are voices in the Church against inter-religious dialogue. Even the Encyclical of Pope Benedict XVI, Dominus Jesus is not very dialogue-friendly. In fact Jeevadhara itself devoted a whole issue with a number of articles by international theologians opposing this anti-dialogal stance of this encyclical. Referring to the negative reaction to this document, the spokesperson for FABC (Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conference), Edmund Chia wrote six months after the publication of this document:
Even as six months have passed, more articles continue to be churned out and many regard the Dominus Jesus document a pastoral disaster. A look at some of the article-headings on the Yahoo sites is revealing. For instance, one article begins with The Much-maligned
Vatican Document…and another
had this for title: Dominus Jesus Exalts
Her Throne. Yet another hit the nail right on the head by entitling it
explicitly as: Catholics are the Best: I
know you mean it, but did you have to say it that way? Others carried
titles such as Negative Reactions to Declaration Provokes
Churches. The Dominus Jesus, Vatican Vatican Magnifies Divide Among
World’s Religions. ,
Relativism and Reaction and A Kiss of
Death for The Ecumenists. Rome
But a recent official statement of Pope Benedict XVI on the NCRs has been very positive and it encourages all the Christians for inter-religious dialogue. The Pope when receiving in audience the members of The Foundation for Inter-religious and Inter-cultural Research and Dialogue said:
“I repeat with insistence, research and inter-religious and inter-cultural dialogue are not an option but a vital necessity for our time”.
A. The Dialogue Imperatives by the Church
No other Pope has so emphatically and unambiguously spoken about the necessity of inter-religious dialogue as John Paul II. This Pope has not only stressed its need but also has given directions as to how to practice it both by his teachings as well as by his example. The international inter-religious conference, organized under the guidance of the Pope, in 1986 in Assisi was indeed a high point.
Perhaps one of the most enlightening of his allocutions on this topic was the one addressed to the members of the different religions in Madras in February 1986. Here the Pope enumerates a number of reasons for dialogue and points out its way: “The Catholic Church recognizes the truths that are contained in the religious traditions of India. This recognition makes true dialogue possible… The Church’s approach to other religions is one of genuine respect; with them she seeks mutual collaboration. This respect is twofold: respect for man in his quest for answers to the deepest questions of his life, and respect for the action of the Spirit in man”.
To the members of the Plenary Assembly of the Secretariat for Non-Christian Religions, in 1984, the Pope said:
In fact, no one can fail to see the importance and the need which inter-religious dialogue assumes for all religions and all believers, called today more than ever to collaborate so that every person can reach his transcendent goal and realize his authentic growth and to help cultures preserve their own religious and spiritual values in the presence of rapid social changes. Dialogue is fundamental for the Church, which is called to collaborate in God’s plan with its methods of presence, respect, and love towards all persons.
The Secretariat for Non-Christian Religions (
have promulgated in 1984 a document under the title: The Attitude of the Church Towards The Followers of Other Religions.
It points out how the Christian mission by necessity has to be dialogal: Rome
Dialogue is thus the norm and necessary means of every Christian mission, as well as of every aspect of it, whether one speaks of simple presence and witness, service or direct proclamation… Any sense of mission not permeated by such a dialogal spirit would go against the demands of true humanity and against the teaching of the Gospel”.
Three great events that took place in India after Vat. II gave great momentum to the cause of inter-religious dialogue. One of them was the International Seminar held in Bombay almost in the beginning of Vat. II and in connection with the Eucharistic Congress in 1964, which pointed out the salvific value of Non-Christian Religions. Then, the All India Seminar, held in Bangalore, in 1969, and the International Seminar in Nagpur in 1973, declare forcefully and effectively the need of inter-religious dialogue. To this we may add the impact of the Patna National Consultation in 1977 and the three conferences of Indian Theological Association held in 1987, 1988 and 1989 which triggered the cause of inter-religious dialogue in India.
B. Reasons for Dialogue According to these Documents
In his Chennai address to the Non-Christians Pope John Paul II said:
The Catholic Church recognizes the truths that are contained in the religious tradition of India. This recognition makes true dialogue possible. Here today the Church wishes to voice again her true appreciation of the great heritage of the religious spirit that is manifested in your cultural tradition. The Church’s approach to other religions is one of genuine respect, and with them she seeks mutual collaboration.
The International Seminar held at Nagpur gives a very profound reason for dialogue. After explaining how the Vat. II helps us to see the World Religions in a new light, the Seminar declares:
We see at work in them Christ and His Grace An ineffable mystery, the centre and ground of reality and human life, is in different forms and manners active among all peoples of the world and gives ultimate meaning to human existence and aspirations. This mystery which is called by different names, but which no name can adequately represent, is definitely disclosed and communicated in Jesus of Nazareth.
The Indian Theological Association in its 1989 session gives a very interesting sociological reason for the dialogue imperative:
One insight, among many others, that contemporary thought on human nature has brought to light, is the radical insufficiency of any isolated human existence and its need for dialogue for its own self-understanding and authenticity. This principle is valid also in the realm of our religious existence. A religion, however exalted, can no more define itself in splendid isolation from other religions. Rather it has to evolve its own self-understanding in its manifold forms of relatedness to other religions. This takes us to the reality of dialogue in our life.
Most of the reasons given in the above documents depend on Vatican II. The documents by the Secretariat referred to earlier give quite a few references to Vatican II in the following statement:
This vision induced the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council to affirm that in the religious traditions of non-Christians there exist ‘elements which are true and good’ (OT 16); ‘precious things, both religious and human’ (GS 92); ‘seeds of contemplation’ (AG 18); ‘elements of truth and grace’ (AG 9); ‘seeds of the word’ (AG 11, 15) and ‘rays of the truth which illumines all mankind’ (NA 2). According to explicit conciliar indications, these values are found preserved in the great religious traditions of humanity. Therefore, they merit the attention and the esteem of Christians, and their spiritual patrimony is a genuine invitation to dialogue (Cf NA 2, 3; AG 11) not only in those things which unite us but also in our difference.
C. Love-centredness Leading to Rootedness with Openness
Most of the official documents stress the need of love and respect for the partners in dialogue. Pope John Paul II, quoting Ecclesiam Suam of his predecessor Pope Paul VI, affirms that “Dialogue proceeds from the ‘internal drive of charity’”. The Vatican Secretariat too stresses the need of love when it says: “Each aspect and activity of the Church’s mission must therefore be imbued with the spirit of love if it is to be faithful to Christ who commanded the mission and continues to make it possible throughout history”. The CBCI guidelines too emphasize the need of love: “There must be a pervading atmosphere of a deep love of God and love of the other partners in the dialogue. Like all Christian activity, dialogue can be genuine and profitable only if it is the expression of love”.
If this approach demands that one has to be committed to one’s own religion as deeply and as honestly as possible, how can one enter into the heart of the religions of others with openness? The simple answer is that it is through the door of genuine love, the nature of which is sensed both by the child and the grown-up, the educated and the illiterate. And this doctrine is preached by all the religions in the name of ahimsa, karuna, agape, etc. As Erich Fromm says, “In love the paradox occurs that two beings become one yet remain two”. According to this author one of the intrinsic elements of love is mutual respect which makes one look at the other as he is, and view things from his own stand-point. Knowing a person intimately and existentially is essentially connected with loving him. About the connection between knowledge and love in a personalistic situation, Victor Frankl says: “Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality. No one can become fully aware of the very essence of another human being unless he loves him”.
D. Re-reading the Bible for Dialogue–friendly Texts
When we re-read the Scriptures from the context of dialogue we will come across a number of themes and texts which are inclusive and dialogue-friendly. Even in the OT there are many texts which seemed to have been inspired by the Dialogal Spirit. The Book of Jonah, the prophesies of Balaam and of Malachi are very inspiring for dialogue. We shall later on make passing references to the Biblical texts which are exclusive or even fundamentalistic. In the NT, in spite of the bloody persecutions that were going on against the Christians both by the Jews and by the Romans during the coming-to-be of the Gospels, there are numerous texts which can guide us in our Dialogal ventures. We shall select just three texts: (1) The Wise Men from the East (Mt. 2:1-12), (2) The Cornelius Episode (AA 10: 1 to 11:18) and (3) Paul’s Speech in Athens (AA. 17:23-31).
1. The Wise Men from the East (Mt. 2:1-12)
The word used in Greek is ‘magus’ which had various meanings among which one signifies a member of the Persian priestly caste and another, the possessor of occult knowledge and power. The occult knowledge was usually understood in terms of astrology. Since Babylonia was the traditional home for astrology, one could guess that these men had come from that region. Even a midrashic interpretation of this text does not rule out the probability of the incident narrated or the lesson we would like to learn.
Here come three Gentile Wise Men to Jerusalem, the heart of the nation of the Chosen People. They inquire about the birth of the Messiah about whom there were many prophesies and whom the Jewish people were expecting. At first the Jewish leaders looked not much bothered about the birth. But they began to look into the sacred books, perhaps chiefly due to the insistence of Herod, who had many things at stake in such an eventuality. The Jewish Religious Authorities agree with a possibility inquired about by the Wise Men. The news was no source of pleasure for Herod. The Magi go to Bethlehem guided by the same star and pay obeisance to the new born Messiah.
This story bears comparison with that of Jonah both with regard to the dramatic style and with regard to the content. Jonah, a Jewish prophet goes to a non-Jewish people at the bidding of Yahweh. In the whole story Jonah is the villain. Here, some Gentile Wise Men come to the Jewish capital and the reaction of the Jewish people was quite opposite to that of the Ninivites who repented of their sins. The Magi Story tells us that there is revelation among the gentiles. The revelation is understood of the religious symbols of the gentiles concerned, and the revealed truth as practiced by these men.
2. The Cornelius Episode (AA 10: 1 to 11:18)
Here three religions are involved: the religion of the Chosen People, the New Israel, and that of a gentile military leader. The revelation is in favour of the gentiles as in the case of Jonah, Balaam and Magi. The leader of the New Israel, Peter, at first refuses to eat the ‘impure animals’ as prescribed in Lv 11. But the heavenly message tells him not to call anything impure that has been made pure by God (Acts 10:15).
The big sheet being let down to earth by its four corners with all sorts of animals can very well recall the Ark of Noah (Gen 6). The Ark represented a ‘chosen few’ whereas the sheet represented the whole of humanity in which none is too impure not to be accepted. When the messengers of Cornelius came, Peter interpreted the whole revelation in favour of the gentiles and he went along with the messengers. The central message proclaimed here is interpreted by Peter in these words: “The truth I have now come to realize is that God does not have favourites, but that anybody of any nationality who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34; Cfr. also 1 Pet 1:17 and Rom 2:11). He had heard from his Master similar utterances: “But I say this to you; love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you; in this way you will be sons of your Father in heaven, for he causes his sun to rise on bad men as well as good, and his rain to fall on honest and dishonest men alike” (Mt. 5:44-45).
If Origen and Cyprian had had the revelation of this Sheet let down from heaven, which is more representative of the Church than the Ark of Noah, we would not have had the exclusivistic axiom extra ecclesiam nulla salus (=Outside the Church there is no salvation).
3. Paul’s Athenian Speech (AA. 17:23-31)
This speech is considered in comparison with his speech to the Jews in Pisidea in Antioch (Acts 13: 6-41) and to the Christians in Ephesus (Acts 20: 18:35), and with the three speeches of Peter viz. the one on Pentecost (Acts 2:14-40), another in the temple (Acts 3:12-20) and yet another before Cornelius (Acts 10: 34-43). This speech of Paul is considered to be a failure by some on the basis of 1 Cor 2:2 where Paul looks down on human wisdom in comparison with the divine wisdom and is often considered to be a model for how not to preach. But in truth this was no more of a failure than that of Jesus in Nazareth (Lk 4:16-22).
Following the rules of rhetoric he tries to enter through the door of the Athenians to bring them out through his door. He uses quotations not from the OT but from the sacred writings of the ‘Greek Prophets’, Aratos (ca 310 BC) and ‘Epimenides’, a pre-Socratic sage. He appreciates their religiosity. He then speaks approvingly and appreciatively of their religion taken collectively:
From one single stock he not only created the whole human race so that they could occupy the entire earth, but he decreed how long each nation should flourish and what the boundaries of its territory should be. And he did this so that all nations might seek the deity and, by feeling their way towards him, succeed in finding him. Yet in fact he is not far from any of us, since it is in him that we live, and move, and exit, as indeed some of your own writers have said: ‘We are his children’ (17: 26-28).
The tone of this speech is as important as its content. There is no condemnation but approbation. Not a blind approval but a critical one. The Jerome Biblical Commentary points out that the whole speech of Paul had quite some resemblance to the initial stanzas of Arato’s poem. Aratos too was a Silician like Paul.
 Cfr. Articles in Jeevadhara, vol.xxxi, no.183, May 2001. This whole issue of Jeevadhara consists of articles by internationally reputed theologians who point out its flaws and anti-Vat. II reactions.
 Cfr. Jeevadhara, op.cit., p.229
 Vatican City, Feb. 7, 2007, www.zenit.org
 Cfr. Ishanand Vempeny, “Emerging India and the Word of God”, Non-Biblical Scriptures in Dialogal Theologizing, Fr. Paul Puthanangady, SDB (Edit)., Bangalore: NBCLC, 1991, pp.418-420
 The Pope Speaks to India, Bombay: St. Paul Publications, no.17:2, p.83
 The Attitude of the Church towards the Followers of other Religions, “Address of the Pope at the Conclusion of the Plenary Assembly of the Secretariat”, Vatican: Secretarius Pro Non-Christianis, 1984, no.2, p.3
 op.cit., no.30, p.18
 op.cit., no.17:2, p.83
 Service and Salvation, Joseph Pathrapankal (edit), Bangalore: TPI, 1973, nos.12 and 13, p.4
 Theology of Religions, Tiruchirapalli: St. Paul’s Seminary, no.16, pp.18-19
 op. cit., no.26, p.16
 op.cit., no.9, p.9
 op.cit., no.44, p.46
 The Art of Loving, New York : Bantam Book, 1970, p.17
 Op.cit., p.22
 Man’s Search for Meaning, New York: Washington Square Press, 1968, p.176
 Cfr. Ishanand, Inspiration in Non-Biblical Scriptures, Bangalore: TPI, 1973, pp.126-133
 Cfr. For wiper deeper study, Ishanand, Raw Materials for an Indian Theology, Chapter-9, pp.292-318