Some loose ideas about interreligious conversations

Over the past days I have been reading a very interesting doctoral work on Christian theologies of religion by a doctoral student at our faculty of theology, K.U.Leuven, Frederik Glorieux. Some loose ends about interreligious conversations and dialogue kept me thinking. I just offer them here as incentives to further thinking. They would certainly merit some more precise theological thinking.

(1) In the case of the encounter of religions or of members of various religions, I prefer to speak about conversations than about dialogue. To me the word conversation is much more general and points much more clearly in the direction of community building, than the word dialogue which also seems to restrict itself to discussions and to reasoning. Moreover, it allows an easier plural, lending it a less abstract touch. Interreligious conversations are always contextual and amongst concrete people in concrete circumstances; they also involve more than discussions in words. Interreligious conversations, therefore, are always embedded in concrete histories. This is an element that strongly surfaces in Frederik’s work: the story of the theologian who reflects on the interactions between religions, has to be told.

(2) When we come to speak about truth in the context of interreligious conversations, we have to realize that truth here is relational. When Jesus of Nazareth claims “I am the way, the truth and the life”, he is speaking to people and the words “way”, “truth”, and “life” acquire their meaning precisely in the interaction between the interlocutors. The truth lies in the life of Jesus, the Christ, who meets us on our ways and amidst our histories. It is not some kind of abstract propositional claim, although, of course, we also need these claims, but we should never forget that their are histories and passions behind them, not only concepts.

(3) I like Karl Rahner’s idea of anonymous Christians, not in the sense that the measuring rod for the value of someone else’s religious convictions should be the Christian faith, but in the sense that the other, although not a Christian, should be treated in the conversations as a Christian, and that precisely because in the others, be they Christians or not, God reveals Godself to us and draws us into a human encounter that allows us to creatively, in the conversations, deepen our faith and our relationship to God (his is an economic trinitarian interaction, as appears clearly in the mystical experience of Egied Van Broeckhoven). Of course, we expect that the others would also give us this status of anonymity: anonymous Muslims, Buddhists, Jews, etc. We hope that members of other religions will treat us, Christians, as they would treat members of their own religions and this out of theological reasons. Therefore, I use the expression reciprocal anonymity. In all honesty, one can only hope that the recognition in anonymity is mutual, reciprocal: we cannot command this or even demand it from others. There may arise the pain of not been treated as one treats the others and this may lead to deep pain and suffering. But, of course, one cannot make one’s own attitude dependent upon whether or not the others grant us the status of anonymity that we attempt to give them. This leads to a kenotic position, out of which we are always tempted to move out.

(4) Conversations require engagement, commitment, incarnation, i.e. the willingness to enter them. In the conversations people come to share their lives, at all its levels: ideas, desires, fears, longings, material conditions, religious convictions, etc. So interreligious conversations are not merely an intellectual affair, and they will involve concrete life as well as processes of symbolisation so as to articulate the vision of shared life in community.

(5) I have often been wondering, and all the more so after the ending of the Advanced Masterprogramme in Conflict and Sustainable Peace that I was responsible for together with my colleague Luc Reychler from the faculty of social sciences, K.U.Leuven, whether there could not be developed a promising and creative approach to interreligious conversations from the perspective of conflict transformation towards sustainable peace. In such an approach, we will stress the importance of a vision of a shared future for all the participants in the conversations, as well as the creative power of such conversations in allowing new insights and ways of common life to emerge out of the encounters. What is really liberating in such encounters is not that one of us is right and the other wrong, but rather that we develop ways to live together in a sustainable and dignified way.

(6) The experiences of suffering – although it is precisely against suffering that we move – contain creative energies that can be tapped into. The willingness to do so, i.e. not to trap experiences of suffering into sterile and never-ending processes of victimisation, requires trust in one another and the faith in a vision that suffering can be overcome by relying on the foundational togetherness of people in all their differences.

These are but some small ideas and thoughts.  They certainly need further development, but maybe they can be helpful.


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