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The thick and thin of inter-religious dialogue

Dialogue is no luxury; peace depends on it. The question most simply put is: How shall we live our lives together?

Years ago Pierre Teilhard de Chardin re-told a story from Genesis. According to him, homo sapiens originated somewhere in East Africa and swarmed from there all over the world, rather like the 70 or 72 grandsons of Noah when he asked them to move out of his homestead. Without realising that they were walking on a globe, they walked further and further away from each other, passed the equator and started to meet again. It is that meeting we call in our day and age ‘globalisation’.

Biblically, it is seen as a kind of family get-together. Each community—Christian and Muslim, Jewish and Hindu, and all the others—has its own history, its own unique religion, and its own interpretation of the shape and future of the world. Yet, while living in these different worlds, they all have been living in the same world with a future still to be determined.

These separate histories find their full meaning only if seen in the perspective of God’s ‘whole-ing’ or healing the whole of God’s people. This being so, dialogue is essential to discern the focus and shape of God’s work and mission in our world. A dialogue based on this insight participates in God’s work and mission. It will respect how the Spirit is at work ‘from within’ the other, just as the Spirit is at work ‘from within’ myself.

This dialogue is not a discussion or debate. There will be no winners and losers, though there might be changes and conversions. There will be a mutual enrichment, and an approach to God as not experienced before. To alienate one’s self from this community, in a kind of monologue, would mean to cut one’s self off from humanity.

The dialogue asked for is not only a question of listening. There is also the aspect of ‘speaking’, of witnessing. Christians would not be fair either to themselves or to the other, if they failed to mention Jesus’ role in their past and present. Christians have to be clear to themselves and to others, that what they do is because they discovered, in Jesus, the reason for a dialogical approach.

Witness is not so much a technique to convince, as an opportunity to open ourselves to the other on the reality of God in our lives. It is not so much a question of ‘conversion’ but one of convergence, progressing together toward a full understanding of what it means to be the one family of God.

Inter-religious dialogue should be much more than about bringing members of religious communities into discussion with each other. It is what some would call the thin, or spiritual, of inter-religious dialogue. The Federation of Asian Bishops Conference constantly stresses that a serious inter-religious dialogue can only be done through solidarity and sharing with the poor. That is the thick, or corporal, aspect of inter-religious dialogue with its implications for the political, social and economic organization and life of humankind. Its goal is total human development.

J.G. Donders m. afr. is an Emeritus Professor of Mission and Cross-Cultural Studies at Washington Theological Union, USA.



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