02 September 2015

When interfaith dialogue is more
about talking than about listening

In the churchyard at Saint Bene’t’s, Cambridge, this morning (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

We talk at a speed of 200 to 250 words a minute but can listen at 300 to 500 words a minutes. So, when another person is talking, it is easy to get side-tracked by my own thoughts – which may well be triggered by one thing that the speaker says. When I lose track of a conversation, rather than lose face and become embarrassed, I can find myself nodding, smiling and hoping that the other people in the conversation do not notice.

Someone once said: “We have two ears and one mouth and we should use them proportionally.”

Do we listen to each other when we engage in inter-faith dialogue? We faced this question this morning [2 September 2015] at the annual conference of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies.

This year’s conference, which is taking place this week in Sidney Sussex College, is looking at ‘Christian Faith, Identity and Otherness: Possibilities and Limitations of Dialogue in Ecumenical and Interfaith Discourse.’

This morning, Dr Gorazd Andrejč of the Woolf Institute, Cambridge, talked about the role of ecumenical and interfaith dialogue when he asked us to consider: “Dialogue, Conversation or Discursive Encounter – How Relevant are the Conceptual Distinctions?”

Dr Gorazd Andrejč of the Woolf Institute speaking at the IOCS summer conference in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, this morning (Photograph: Dragos Herescu, 2015)

Dr Andrejč, a philosopher and theologian from Slovenia, is a Junior Research Fellow at the Woolf Institute, and a research associate at Saint Edmund’s College, Cambridge. His academic interests include the ways in which religious language, belief-attitudes and felt experience are intertwined, especially in Christianity, and inter-religious and religious-secular relations, especially in Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, and Britain.

Before joining the Woolf Institute in 2013, he was a lecturer at the University of Exeter, where he designed and taught philosophy of religion courses.

The Woolf Institute is a global leader in the academic study of relations between Jews, Christians and Muslims. The institute was established in Cambridge in 1998, with close links to the university, and once shared space in Wesley House, Cambridge, with the IOCS.

Dr Andrejč explained this morning that what is called dialogue is not necessarily dialogue, and how there is a pre-dialogue stage before or instead of inter-faith dialogue.

Instead of talking about inter-faith dialogue, he asked, are there times when we should talk about communications instead, for communications need not be trusting, and can even be hostile or aggressive?

When we stop communicating, we can keep on talking at each other, even though genuine communications may be lacking.

For example, when the Church Father quoted rabbinical sources, there was no dialogue with living Jewish authorities. Yet there had been some discursive encounter, even though it was marked by manipulation and misunderstanding.

It happens today, for example, he suggested, when a Serbian Orthodox leader quotes out of context from a sermon by a Bosnian Muslim. There is an encounter even if there is no communications or dialogue. He wondered whether such instances more common than dialogue.

What is really going on when people say they are engaging in inter-faith dialogue? On the surface it may look like dialogue, but something else may be going on with people taking positions.

He suggested that inter-faith dialogue is different in different cultures and for different traditions. We need to be aware of the different types of communications and interactions between religions that are not dialogue but have positive contributions to creating co-existence. We also need to be aware of who is being ignored and who is struggling to be listened to in inter-faith encounters. Who is invited to the table, and who is excluded?

King’s Parade, Cambridge, in this morning’s sunshine (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Later this morning, Dr Brandon Gallaher, Lecturer in Christian Theological Studies in the University of Exeter, introduced us to “The One Logos and the Many Logoi: Reflections towards an Orthodox Comparative Theology.”

His background is in systematic theology, and has worked in Japan, with a post-doctoral fellowship at Doshisha University, Kyoto, last year [October 2014] and again this year [late Spring-Summer 2015], with first-hand experience of Buddhism and Shintoism. Through the encouragement of Archbishop Rowan Williams, who was his external examiner, he also became involved in the “Building Bridges” project.

He drew comparisons and a distinction between “comparative theology” and the “theology of religions,” he looked at Orthodoxy and other religions, and asked why Orthodoxy has not produced much theological work in either field.

There has been a long association between Orthodoxy and other religions, living beside other religions in the Middle East, South India and since the 19th century in Japan.

There has not been much Orthodox theological reflection drawing on this experience, although he cited examples from John Garvey, Metropolitan Georges Khodr, David Bentley Hart, Alexander Men, Mar Paulos Gregorios, David Flood and Dr Mangala Frost of the IOCS, who spoke at the conference yesterday afternoon.

The Vatican paper Nostra Aetate (1965) opened Roman Catholics to engagement with world religions. Why has something similar not developed in Orthodoxy?

The development of Orthodox theology has been tied in recent decades to the Russian diaspora, and has concentrated on a neo-Patristic synthesis, with a retrieval of sources in Church Fathers and Liturgy that was grasping for identity. They were interested only in Christianity, especially in the West, and not in other religions.

The major figures in this tradition developed their theology in ecumenical dialogue with other Christians, and were closely involved in the early years of the World Council of Churches.

He looked at diaspora and post-diaspora theology before asking why there is a need for an Orthodox comparative theology?

Well, he said, we are not living in Byzantium, we are living the reality of post-modernity. A second reason is that in secular society today, religions are brought together and forced to deal with one another in finding common cause and in response to civil society. A third reason is created by the persecution of Christians by radical Islam in the Middle East.

He summarised the standard Western models of theology of religions as exclusivism, pluralism and inclusivism. Exclusivism says that salvation only comes through Christ by faith, and some adherents hold to double election, while others say there is no salvation outside the Church, and still others are open to the possibility of receiving the Gospel after death (see I Peter 3).

However, exclusivism does not answer problems of those who lack access to the Gospel.

Pluralists argue that all religions are equal paths to salvation, to God, or to the nameless reality, mapped onto the Trinity. Some pluralists say that all religions are true if they embody certain universal, ethical codes.

However, it leaves questions about agnosticism, about dogmatic relativism and about they create what Gavin D’Costa calls a “religious Esperanto” or their own religions.

Inclusivists argue that all are saved by Christ, but this may be through being true to one’s conscience or through following after the end of their being but not necessarily through a direct encounter with the Gospel. He looked at the work of Karl Rahner and Sergei Bulgakov in this area.

George Linbert is critical of all these models, saying they have a soteriological fixation. He says that completely different religions cannot talk to each other without distorting their essential meanings.

The worst-case scenario is that dialogue ends before it even starts. When dialogue continues it often lacks attention to truth or to the presence of Christ in other religions.

He finds these models abstract and have typical Western theological obsession with determining whether someone is saved or not. Citing Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, he suggested Orthodoxy has a “trusting agnosticism” on salvation, and sees it as a process.

He shared his experience of looking for Jesus everywhere while he was working in Japan. If Christ is at the heart of creation, we need to look for his face everywhere.

The Russian theologian Sergei Bulgakov (1871-1944) uses the image of the Temple and its inner circle or Holy of Holies, which is the Orthodox Church, and the outer court, where we find other Christian Churches. They too are ecclesial and part of the Church, with a grain of Orthodoxy and with a relationship to the Holy of Holies.

The limits of the Church do not exist, but extend to all creation, and the periphery of the Church is at the ends of creation, where we still see the holy face of Christ.

Justin Martyr said in the 2nd century that whatever was well said belongs to Christianity, and seeds of the Word are scattered everywhere. Maximus the Confessor (ca 580-662) said the one Logos is many logoi.

How can these ideas be applied to religions today? And can they be applied to non-Abrahamic religions, such as Buddhism and Hinduism? Are they seeking after the One in whom all things hold together?

Any Orthodox approach to comparative theology needs to be Trinitarian and Christological, he said. But it also has to be ecclesiological, Patristic, prayer-bent and dialogical.

The challenge is in discerning the Cross as the watermark of Divine Love in everything in creation.

Time to read The Irish Times during a break this morning (Photograph: Dragos Herescu, 2015)

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