‘Enough Bromides’

Rethinking interfaith dialogue
Parliament of the World's Religions, Chicago, United States, 1893 (Wikimedia Commons)

Pope Francis’s 2020 encyclical, Fratelli tutti, is remarkable for highlighting St. Francis’s irenic meeting with Fatimid Egypt’s Sultan Malik al-Kamil in 1219 amid the depredations of the Fifth Crusade—an encounter richly depicted in a fresco by Giotto in the Upper Basilica in Assisi. The meeting is a distant harbinger of what today we would call interfaith or interreligious dialogue, the significance of which was emphasized by the Pope’s 2019 meeting in Abu Dhabi with Grand Imam Ahmad al-Tayyeb and his more recent meeting in Iraq with the Shia leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

In St. Francis’s time, such meetings were rare; today they are more common. Some scholars even speak of a “global interfaith movement,” which gained steam in the second half of the twentieth century but really accelerated in response to 9/11. A simple web search will dredge up thousands of interfaith “centers,” “institutes,” “councils,” “projects,” “initiatives,” “forums,” “groups,” and “alliances.” The sheer number of these bodies, in the United States and abroad, poses a challenge to the scholar attempting to chart the movement’s history.

But most trace their origins to Chicago’s 1893 Parliament of the World’s Religions, hosted in conjunction with that year’s World’s Fair. For an unprecedented sixteen days, the parliament brought together religious leaders from around the world for a series of lectures and conversations. Similar events soon followed, both in the United States and Europe, usually spearheaded by scholars, liberal Protestants, Reform Jews, Unitarians, and Theosophists. At first the Catholic Church looked on with skepticism. Pope Leo XIII even fulminated against “promiscuous religious gatherings,” and several prelates who participated in the Chicago event were later disciplined. But of course the Church pivoted at the Second Vatican Council (1962–65), heartily endorsing interreligious dialogue in its Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, Nostra aetate. Begun as a post-Holocaust statement on Jewish-Catholic relations, Nostra aetate was broadened to include other faiths as well. Pope John Paul II, who had been a young theologian at the council, made interfaith engagement a central feature of his historic papacy, while Jewish scholars such as Martin Buber and Abraham Joshua Heschel also championed it.

Since the late twentieth century, and especially after 9/11, interfaith organizations have mushroomed, and numerous religious bodies are now on board. A sample list might include Religions for Peace (founded in 1970), the Inter Faith Network for the United Kingdom (1987), the North American Interfaith Network (1988), the Global Ethic Foundation (1995), the Rumi Forum (1999), the United Religions Initiative (2000), the Malaysian Interfaith Network (2003), and the Doha International Centre for Interfaith Dialogue (2007), among many others. In 2011, the United Nations began recognizing World Interfaith Harmony Week every February. The American Academy of Religion recognized a new Interreligious and Interfaith Studies unit in 2014. Major philanthropic foundations have gotten into the act, funding a wide variety of interfaith initiatives. Countless books and articles have appeared on the subject.

In short, even as violence tied to religious identity still assails us in the daily news, we live in a booming heyday for interreligious dialogue. From a historical perspective, this phenomenon is remarkable, a noteworthy departure from the more isolationist and skeptical postures that faith traditions have exhibited toward one another in the past. For those involved, “dialogue” has become an umbrella term, signifying a wide range of peaceful exchanges, gatherings, and collaborations involving two or more religious traditions. At such events the consensus is that different faith traditions ought to get along and make the world a better place.

It is hard to disagree with such a goal, and, indeed, one finds much that is commendable in the current interfaith scene. But it is also a movement facing fundamental challenges and criticisms. The criticisms are best understood after surveying several recent developments. Together, these suggest that the jury is still out on the shape and future of interreligious dialogue. There is reason for both hope and concern.

 

The mutual reading exercises invite participants not to downplay differences but to aim for “better quality disagreement” in an atmosphere of mutual respect.

Take, for instance, the work of the Jewish theologian Peter Ochs, who teaches at the University of Virginia. Ochs was tired of the parliament-style approach to interreligious dialogue that was in vogue for much of the twentieth century. This approach saw the mission of interreligious dialogue as issuing high-minded statements about peace while privileging a distinctively Western taxonomy of the “great world religions.” Deciding that something different was needed, Ochs launched the Scriptural Reasoning Project, which brings together Jews, Christians, and Muslims in deliberately small groups to read and discuss one another’s sacred texts. This format aims to work against the widespread canard that all religions teach basically the same thing. The mutual reading exercises invite participants not to downplay differences but to aim for “better quality disagreement” in an atmosphere of mutual respect. Today this method has its own society and its own journal (Journal of Scriptural Reasoning).

The often contextless “world religions” model has also been eschewed by other organizations that want to pay greater attention to the geographical and historical particularities in which dialogue takes place. Recently I traveled to the Balkans to talk with people involved in the Sarajevo-based Interreligious Council of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Avoiding discussion of Christianity and Islam in the abstract, the Council concentrates on helping religious communities understand and come to terms with the conflicts of the 1990s. The Council also sponsors visits of religious leaders to sites where violence has recently occurred, and organizes events for young Orthodox Serbs, Catholics, and Bosnian Muslims so that they might get to know one another beyond the conflicting ethnic narratives about the recent past.

The power of art and music is increasingly recognized for its ability to create understanding across religious traditions. Ruth Illman’s Art and Belief: Artists Engaged in Interreligious Dialogue (2012) explores many contemporary instances of art being creatively employed to foster interfaith encounters. An annual Festival of Sacred Music began in Fez, Morocco, in 1994. “Art,” writes the artist Mary Anderson, “offers to inter-religious dialogue a generous template for recognizing truth—in the religious other, in the other religion—that is born in the humble kenosis of self-disclosure.”

In recent decades, religious traditions and communities—including American Evangelicals and the Church of Latter-Day Saints—that have historically been skeptical of one another and on the margins of interfaith dialogue, have begun conversing with one another. Mormons were conspicuously not invited to the Chicago Parliament in 1893, and the then leading Evangelical revivalist Dwight L. Moody condemned the event as an act of national apostasy. But things change. A series of encounters begun at Brigham Young University in the 1990s resulted in books such as Craig L. Blomberg and Stephen E. Robinson’s How Wide the Divide? A Mormon & an Evangelical in Conversation (1997) and Richard Mouw’s Talking with Mormons: An Invitation to Evangelicals (2012). “No one has compromised or diluted his or her own theological convictions,” writes the Mormon theologian Robert L. Millet about these meetings, “but everyone has sought to demonstrate the kind of civility that ought to characterize a mature exchange of ideas among a body of believers who have discarded defensiveness.” 

The importance of involving young people has become more widely recognized. Chicago’s Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), founded in 2002, is a pioneer in inspiring young people with the ability of interfaith dialogue to nurture civil society and healthy pluralism. “Interfaith cooperation does not depend upon shared political, theological, and spiritual perspectives,” IFYC’s founder, Eboo Patel, insists. “People who engage in interfaith cooperation may disagree on such matters. The goal of interfaith leadership is to find ways to bring people together to build relationships, learn about each other, and participate in common action despite such differences.” Patel is also a critic of parliament-style dialogue, but he wants members of various faith communities to work together to increase “social capital” and sustain the virtues and practices necessary for self-government.

Besides common action, common contemplation has a role to play too. A particularly striking development has been for contemplatives from various traditions to meet and converse. This is the goal of Dialogue Interreligieux Monastique/Monastic Interreligious Dialogue, an international monastic organization that traces its roots to the late 1970s. An expression of the Benedictine charism of hospitality, the organization is a commission of the Benedictine Order and acts in liaison with the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. “What distinguishes the monastic approach to interreligious dialogue,” the organization’s secretary general, William Skudlarek, OSB, told me, “is an emphasis on hospitality and spiritual experience. Almost all events take place in monasteries, and the schedule is built around the liturgical horarium of the monastic community. In meetings with Buddhists, ample time is provided for common meditation. In meetings with Muslims, their times of prayer are also included in the schedule.”

Beyond interreligious studies, interreligious dialogue has given rise to another academic field: comparative theology. In contradistinction to dialogue proper and comparative religion (which strives for a more neutral approach), comparative theology insists that the theologian work from the standpoint of a particular tradition, but develop his or her thoughts in close conversation with another tradition. According to Harvard Divinity School’s Francis Clooney, SJ, comparative theology “marks acts of faith seeking understanding which are rooted in a particular faith tradition but which, from that foundation, venture into learning from one or more other faith traditions.” While novel in some respects, such an approach has venerable precedents in figures such as Thomas Aquinas and Maimonides, both of whom drew insights from all three Abrahamic traditions.

The plight of persecuted religious minorities has been a rallying cry for interfaith engagement in recent decades.

The plight of persecuted religious minorities—such as the Uighurs in China, the Rohingya in Myanmar, and Yazidis and Christians in the Middle East—has been a rallying cry for interfaith engagement in recent decades. Particularly noteworthy is the Marrakesh Statement (2016), signed by more than two thousand Muslims leaders. The statement pleads for the rights of religious minorities in Muslim-majority countries. Pope Francis’s travels have been motivated by a similar concern.

Finally, interfaith activity today is taking place at a time when specialists in foreign policy, too often beholden in the past to secular analyses of geopolitics, are taking account of how religious actors and communities affect the maintenance of global peace. Douglas Johnston and Cynthia Sampson’s Religion, the Missing Dimension of State Craft (1994) helped effect this shift in scholarly outlook, which now includes a reappraisal of the significance of interfaith work. Along with others, this work, writes Katherine Marshall, has helped point out “blind spots in relation to religion in many diplomatic and international affairs circles. It also highlights a sharpening focus on interreligious and religious peacebuilding, both within individual traditions and as an interreligious endeavor.”

 

Even as interfaith dialogue has proliferated in recent decades, several recurring criticisms have arisen, pointing out elitism within its ranks, vague idealism about its ends, and problems arising from its largely Western origins. These criticisms, and others, deserve a fair airing and robust discussion. Of course, one must keep in mind the polymorphic nature of interfaith dialogue today. Generalizing about it is a complicated matter: what’s true of one branch of dialogue might not be true of another. Nonetheless, movements are refined by constructive criticisms, not by unreflective acceptance.

Despite its increasingly global scope, the interfaith movement often reflects its distinctively Western origins. Much interfaith activity has rested on the view that religion is a kind of “genus,” of which particular religions are the various species. In this view, religion is understood to be a cultural variable readily distinguishable from other cultural variables, whether social, ethnic, linguistic, or political. This has roughly been the “world religions” approach, already mentioned. But thinking of “Confucianism” or “Hinduism”—terms invented by Western scholars—as discrete, easily definable “religions” raises enormous questions about categorization and the transferability of a Western discourse about religion into non-Western domains. To be sure, theorists and practitioners of interreligious dialogue have in recent decades become more sensitive to this problem. This is a healthy thing. But this recognition has produced a crisis of terminology. Should one prefer “interfaith” over “interreligious” or vice versa, or, as some have argued, should one return to the original meaning of “ecumenical” (world-wide or global) and not confine that term to intra-Christian discussion. Others have lobbied for terms such as “interideological,” “intercivilizational,” “intercultural,” “interworldview,” “interspiritual,” and “multireligious,” among others. And what about “political religions”—say, socialism or nationalism? Or atheism? Should they all be included in dialogue too? At stake in the wrangling over terminology is, again, the problem of the applicability and the transferability of Western terms—which themselves are highly dependent on the West’s own passage into modernity—to much wider historical and geographical terrains.

The Anglican theologian John Milbank has written incisively on this matter. In an essay, “The End of Dialogue,” he notes that “such an assumption [understanding religion as a “genus”] certainly undergirds...[contemporary interreligious] dialogue, but it would be a mistake to imagine that it arose simultaneously among all the [global] participants as the recognition of an evident truth.” On the contrary, he continues, “it is clear that the other religions were taken by Christian thinkers to be a species of the genus ‘religion,’ because these thinkers systematically subsumed alien cultural phenomena under categories which comprise Western notions of what constitutes religious thought and practice.” These “false categorizations,” Milbank concludes, “have often been accepted by Western-educated representatives of the other religions themselves, who are unable to resist the politically imbued rhetorical forces of Western discourse.” If this is true, or even partly true, then there needs to be a more rigorous inquiry into the intellectual and terminological assumptions that have given birth to, and still inform, present-day dialogue.

This leads to the difficult dilemma of who can credibly and knowledgeably speak on behalf of a particular faith tradition.

And this leads to the difficult dilemma of who can credibly and knowledgeably speak on behalf of a particular faith tradition. This dilemma has long been acknowledged as an Achilles heel of interreligious dialogue despite good-faith efforts to bring to the dialogue table “native expositors,” as they were called at a 1924 Living Religions of the Empire Conference in London. To be sure, in some cases, one might readily identify leaders—bishops in Roman Catholicism, for example—who can plausibly speak on behalf of a tradition. But for other traditions—Taoism or Shinto or Buddhism—it is not exactly clear how one designates an authoritative speaker who can credibly represent others in the same tradition. The same thing is true of Protestantism. The scholar of religion Kusumita P. Pedersen refers to this dilemma as the “representativity problem.” Most faiths are “polycentric rather than centralized,” she observes, and “it is no simple matter to determine how and when a representative may be ‘officially’ mandated by his or her community to take part in an interfaith activity on behalf of that institution or community.” One might further ask who speaks for plural religious identities given, for example, the way Confucian, Taoist, and Buddhist sensibilities overlap within individuals and in communities in South Asia? 

Whether representative of their faith traditions or not, elites do most of the talking at interfaith events. This makes the question of elitism inescapable. Following in the mold of the 1893 Parliament, organizers of subsequent events have placed a premium on elites, especially clerical and academic experts, at the expense of seeking out the perspectives of on-the-ground practitioners. To a degree, this makes sense: experts presumably know the tradition well. But the Indian scholar Muthuraj Swamy, the author of The Problem with Interreligious Dialogue, argues that the elite-academic character of much interreligious dialogue obscures how “religion” (a word he uses only hesitantly) is experienced at a more grassroots level. Swamy is particularly incisive in showing how a reified dialogist’s understanding of “Hinduism” (a terminological legacy of colonialism, according to many scholars) has played into the hands of Hindu nationalists in India and undermined longstanding indigenous patterns of interreligious cooperation and coexistence and the not-infrequent plural religious identities among lower-caste Indians.

What’s more, as the exhilarating novelty of earlier meetings wore off in the twentieth century, many interfaith events became predictably anodyne affairs, trafficking in bland bromides about peace and coexistence and having little actual impact. Yes, religious leaders should come together to foster peace. But how long must one listen to one learned speaker after another repeating, in the words of Pedersen, the same “vacuous, nonspecific, and nonbinding statements declaring in general terms that peace is good”? In his memoir Acts of Faith, Eboo Patel offers a humorous anecdote from his own experience at one of these parliament-style meetings. “The problem with going to these [interreligious] events,” he wrote,

was that they were excruciatingly boring. They were always dinners or conferences with a lot of old people doing a lot of talking. The big goal seemed to be drafting documents declaring that religious people should be dialoguing with each other and then planning the next conference for the document to be reviewed. It was always the same people saying the same things, and still the events went way too long. I remember one especially torturous interfaith dinner.... By the time the ninth speaker of the evening took the podium, the audience was long past being discreet about looking at their watches and had begun to shift noisily in their seats. The evening had proceeded like most interfaith activities: a couple of hundred people...picking at plates of dry hotel food and listening to a long list of speakers repeating the same reasons interfaith activities are important. 

In contrast to this approach, Patel has emphasized what is sometimes called “diapraxis,” which seeks to bring young people of various religious backgrounds together to strengthen civil society, and to work for the common good. 

Intent on finding common ground, many dialogues have eschewed candidly discussing religious differences and settled for what the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has called “conversations of colorless compromise,” which eventuate in “superficial joint declarations.” In many respects, this is an understandable goal, motivated by a desire to avoid the vitriolic polemics of the past. But perhaps an over-correction has now occurred. In a desire to arrive at tranquility, peace, not truth, has too often become the only goal of dialogue, and the (often unspoken) rules of dialogue work to reinforce this. But perhaps the time is ripe to retrieve an older Platonic sense of dialogue, in which mutual truth-seeking is the primary concern. As the late Cardinal Avery Dulles once observed, “If methodological rules [of interreligious dialogue] are laid down that require the parties to renounce or conceal points on which they disagree, dialogue can become inhibitive and impoverishing. The fault lies not with dialogue itself but with the theorists who seek to evade its rigorous demands.” Perhaps the next stage of interreligious dialogue should be a willingness to re-open the age-old question of religious truth, as confoundingly difficult as this may seem, rather than to bypass it or settle it too quickly or glibly. At the very least, boosters of dialogue should admit the downsides of producing, in the words of Dulles, “statements so diluted and broad that they become functionally meaningless.”  

Such an approach often rests on the debatable assumption that conflicts among “world religions” constitute the biggest impediment to global peace. To quote lines made famous by the late German Catholic theologian Hans Küng: “No peace among the nations without peace among the religions. No peace among the religions without dialogue between the religions. No dialogue between the religions without investigation of the foundation of the religions.” Of course, conflicts between large religious traditions—say, between Christianity and Islam—have been a source of violence in the past. But it is harder than one might think to isolate religion as the principal cause of conflict, because differences of religion are almost always connected to ethnic, political, linguistic, economic, and geographical differences. As Swamy writes of the situation in India: “It is almost always overlooked that what is claimed as ‘religious violence’ usually stems from the socio-economic and personal struggles of people, and from the political intervention which plays with religious identities of people in order to boost vote-bank politics.” The fact that Muslims and Christians might get along in Seattle or Toronto but not in Sarajevo or Cairo suggests that far more than religious difference alone is at work in putatively religious conflicts. A comparable point is developed by William T. Cavanaugh in his book The Myth of Religious Violence (2009), where he argues that the category of “religious violence,” viewed in historical perspective, has insidiously drawn attention away from the more pervasive and enduring violence caused by the modern secular nation-state.

 

The key fault-lines have less to do with religious divisions per se than with social and political divisions expressed in a religious idiom.

In recent decades, one also observes conflicts within particular traditions between anti-modern traditionalists and pro-modern reformers. In many respects, we might today be witnessing the globalization of the kind of “culture war” that the sociologist James Davison Hunter has explored in contemporary America. In Hunter’s analysis, the deepest disagreements in American society were no longer between Catholics, Protestants, and Jews, as had historically been the case, but between conservatives within these traditions (whom Hunter calls “the Orthodox”) and their more latitudinarian co-religionists (whom he calls “the Progressives”). In other words, the key fault-lines have less to do with religious divisions per se than with social and political divisions expressed in a religious idiom. Furthermore, our globalized culture wars often possess a class and regional dimension. The wealthier and more educated tend to live in urban, cosmopolitan spaces where interfaith dialogue receives nourishment from a politically liberal environment, while the poorer and less educated tend to live in more homogenous rural settings, where in recent decades religiously tinted nationalisms have gained traction against what is perceived as the deracinating threat of globalization. Understanding and managing these types of divisions—the cosmopolitan versus the non- or anti-cosmopolitan or the orthodox versus the progressive—might be more critical for peace in the future than understanding traditional religious fault-lines. If so, the older “world religions” taxonomy and model of dialogue may turn out to be not only too Western but also anachronistic.

Ironically, interfaith dialogue itself has often produced internecine divisions within particular faith communities, divisions that fall roughly along “orthodox” and “progressive” lines. This is easy to see in the cases of Christianity and Judaism: progressive voices within these communities have strongly championed interreligious dialogue, whereas more conservative voices have worried that it will lead down a slippery slope toward relativism or feel-good syncretism. Interfaith ventures often fail, as Robert Wuthnow has noted, “because of opposition from other religious groups in the [same] religious community.” Today, the regnant ethos governing interreligious dialogue, especially in the academy, is that of pluralism—an ethos heartily embraced by progressives. But such an outlook leads to what Marion H. Larson and Sara L. H. Shady have called the unacknowledged “liberal privilege” within the interfaith movement. This is particularly problematic for more traditionalist voices, who not infrequently find that their more exclusivist faith positions, even if peaceably held and winsomely articulated, are summarily dismissed as “proselytizing” and ruled out of bounds by their liberal peers.

This dilemma is not likely to be resolved any time soon, but one wonders if traditionalists could stop exaggerating the risks of interreligious dialogue, and if progressives could admit that there is something disingenuous about calling for open dialogue while stacking the deck against more traditionalist voices. Such voices probably constitute the vast majority of rank-and-file believers in many of the world’s faith traditions and are ignored or dismissed at great peril. Interfaith engagement that self-selects—that attracts only those who are most open to it in the first place—profoundly misconstrues the reason for interfaith dialogue. As the Lutheran theologian Carl Braaten has bluntly put it: “Why should the dialogues invite only the modernized [pluralist] versions of religions whose representatives may be merely a minority of enlightened liberals with scarcely any religious constituency to speak of?”

Many people would agree that interfaith dialogue is obviously a good thing, but developing metrics and reliable data to measure the success of such dialogue poses acute challenges. “The lack of clearly defined and tangible aims,” as the religion scholars John Fahy and Jan-Jonathan Bock have written, “renders [interfaith] initiatives difficult, if not impossible to evaluate.” As Katherine Marshall notes, “Evaluation work has generally been rather limited and restricted to limited facets or specific events or measures. There is growing recognition that more rigorous metrics of assessment and, more importantly, clearer goals are needed.” Otherwise, one winds up with “general fuzziness” with respect to “tangible outcomes”—the mere “vapourings of amiable idealists,” as one critic said of the first conference of Britain’s World Congress of Faiths in 1936.

One could mention still other criticisms, but the foregoing offers a general sense of the more forceful objections and misgivings that interfaith dialogue has encountered in recent years. Of course, as a young and growing movement, plenty of time exists for development and improvement, for the accumulation of self-knowledge and wiser action. As with all movements, one should expect persisting differences of opinion, along with a certain number of dead ends on the way to finding a path forward. Yet the sheer size and scope of interfaith activity today has no precedent in human history. In world-historical terms, it represents a new dimension of human religiosity.

Whatever the future may bring, one can safely predict that it will not be wholly secular, as various prophets of modernity once predicted. Indeed, as Britain’s recently deceased Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has written: “great responsibility now lies with the world’s religious communities. Against expectations, they have emerged in the twenty-first century as key forces in a global age.” Insofar as interfaith dialogue can rise to address challenges and learn from criticisms as it continues to bring different religious communities together, it too can be a force for good, helping to shoulder this weighty responsibility.

Published in the May 2021 issue: 

Thomas Albert Howard is professor of humanities and the holder of the Duesenberg Chair in Ethics at Valparaiso University. This essay is adapted from his new book, The Faiths of Others: A History of Interreligious Dialogue (Yale University Press).

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