Saturday, September 21, 2013

Transformation through Interfaith Dialogue
Herman Roborgh S.J.

Interfaith dialogue does not just happen.  What often passes for interfaith dialogue could be simply an exchange of information about religion rather than an experience of deep listening and learning about another faith tradition.  At least, that was my experience while living in Pakistan where the tiny minority of Christians was in daily contact with the vast majority of the Muslim population. Conversations about religion sometimes even led to the strengthening of existing prejudices rather than to a change of attitude; sometimes merely to discussion and debate rather than to a willingness to adopt new ways of thinking.

If interfaith dialogue is to be authentic, it must lead to some form of personal transformation.  How was my life transformed through interfaith dialogue in Pakistan?  The first challenge was the search for a suitable way to engage in interfaith dialogue – the struggle to find an entry point.  The change in me was to realize that I needed to move away from my own perspective and allow myself to understand another faith tradition from the other’s point of view.  Eventually, this led to Arabic classes together with Muslim brothers and sisters in order to understand more deeply their traditional approaches to the Qur’an.

The next step in my personal transformation was the realization that my fellow Muslim students of Arabic were not as focused on interfaith dialogue as I was.  I had to understand and to accept this situation.  Several of my Muslim friends may have been hoping that I would just leave Christianity and embrace Islam. Instead of avoiding these new relationships, I decided to continue along the path of dialogue, wherever it would lead me.

Gradually, these experiences did lead me to certain questions about my motives for being in Pakistan.  Had I been sent here to spend time with Christians or with Muslims?  How could I best help the Christian community?  Was it enough to provide them with Church services?  Was my role simply to listen to their complaints, many of which could have been met with a small gift of money?  It gradually dawned on me that I might be able to contribute something more precious to this small Christian community in Pakistan by encouraging them to be more understanding and accepting of their Muslim neighbours.  But this would inevitably challenge them to change some of their basic attitudes and assumptions. 

Encounters with other faith traditions have led me to investigate my own faith tradition according to the mediaeval dictum: fides quaerens intellectum (faith seeking understanding).  For example, who is Christ if he is also the respected and beloved Prophet of Islam?  What is the meaning of Christ’s death on the cross if Muslims can find their way to God without acknowledging Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection?  What is the meaning of Redemption and Salvation in Christ?  What is the Bible when all Muslims have no doubt that the Qur’an is the literal word of God?  Whence the need for a deity if Buddhists can live well without reference to God? Why do some religions need a hierarchical priesthood when Muslims and Buddhists (and some Christians as well) can manage quite easily without religious intermediaries?  How can Christians like me claim to be leading a life of prayer when Muslims pray five times a day – even in public places? 

Moreover, questions of justice and peace have become sharper for me in the light of interfaith encounters.  Can any religious Scriptural tradition claim to be devoid of references and even instigations to violence?  Can any one religious tradition provide the complete solution to the question of war and conflict between nations?  Can any one religion honestly promote justice without collaborating with other religious traditions?

Interfaith dialogue is an invitation to seek clarity about issues that concern the whole of humanity.  It is not limited to friendly relations between people (even though such friendly relations are the beginning and the guarantee of on-going dialogue), nor is interfaith dialogue concerned simply to find commonalities between the various religions.  While these are all useful goals, another aim of interfaith dialogue is to gain a deeper insight into one’s own ideas and convictions, whatever these may be.  Ultimately, all interfaith encounters that are authentic must involve the readiness to experience some form of profound and on-going personal transformation.

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