Friday, October 20, 2006

Meaningful interfaith dailogue faces several hurdles

Daily Star Commentary

Meaningful interfaith dialogue faces several hurdles



Christianity, Judaism and Islam have a great challenge to limit the growing sectarian tensions that fuel low-intensity conflict as well as full-scale wars. Is interfaith dialogue relevant to local and international bridge-making?

Interfaith dialogue is a search for common ground in truth, values and interests. But there are rules for dialogue and there is practice wisdom. To start with, local respect for expertise is paramount. It is assumed that the most credible experts on Islam are Muslims and the same for other religions. To illustrate, Pope Benedict XVI has defined jihad in Islam in a simplistic way. The dominant writing of Western experts on Arabs and on Islam is too subjective and often negative.
Interfaith requires living experience in other cultures and positive sharing in the environment of other faiths. No amount of sophistication in theology or academia is a substitute for enduring and genuine contact with other cultures and religions.

Dialogue is not about scoring points or moving people away from their beliefs. The focus is not to teach but to learn, not to impress but to empathize and identify with the other. Dialogue requires personal authenticity, active listening, warm nonverbal communication and subtle linguistic exchange.

More rules. No faith is excluded as unworthy of dialogue, including people outside monotheism and even "nonbelievers." The point is that spirituality is not the monopoly of people of dogma. Dialogue enthusiasts in Christianity and Islam are expected to discourage their colleagues from campaigns of proselytism. Put differently, extreme evangelists are not in the business of dialogue. Extremists of all religions consider interfaith dialogue misguided. Interfaith is not welcomed in communities of restricted freedom.

Dialogue is hard work, but when there is progress the participants get on a spiritual "high." Often, what make dialogue frigid are the actors: Too much dialogue has been assigned to celebrities, politicians or hard-line religious authorities.

Dialogue agencies have been frustrated in their work. The reasons for the failure of interfaith dialogue are too complex. Superiority stands out. Around the world, at an early age, children are taught that their God is the best there is. Other people's Gods are often suspect or imperfect. Ironically, as a result of narrow-minded religious pedagogy, people end up worshipping three distinct monotheist Gods. There is an articulated and paralyzing fear and possessiveness among high-power religious and political authorities that once the process of questioning the scripture leads to the unraveling of the basic system of faith, chaos is the outcome.

Moreover, in a world of growing political turmoil, extremists "steal the show." While conservatives slow dialogue due to fear of unraveling, radical political groups create inter-religious tensions that makes the social climate of dialogue hostile. Terrorists "dialogue" with violence, seeking inter-religious contact. Moderate preachers do not receive their share of the media's attention. Violence in religion comes also in much more subtle ways. In the West, some churches run an industry of fear and anxiety, praying for apocalyptic war and proliferating inflammatory rhetoric about other religions and civilizations.

Ironically, another dialogue barrier is globalization. Sermon's fire and fury are no longer addressed primarily to the local church or the local mosque. What a Western priest says about Islam and Muslims in Chicago is heard in Cairo and New Delhi the same day. Similarly, angry Muslim preachers in Kashmir or Karachi address Christians around the globe through cable channels. Real wars are nowadays fought on the international screen. The summer war in Lebanon and Israel fueled religious hatred around the world.

Finally, among barriers to dialogue is the fluctuating relation of the center to the extreme in religious communities. The lines between moderation and extremism are often hazy and dependent on the level of insecurity of the community and who decides what is mainline. The trend is for each religious community to affirm moderation and distance itself from extremists. Mainline Christians distance themselves from extreme Evangelicals. Similarly, Muslims distance themselves from suicide bombers who target civilians. But still, non-Muslims complain to moderate Muslims that they are not loud enough in their criticism of their extreme side. Reciprocally, Muslims ask Christians to watch extreme Evangelicals who are growing in influence in Western society. For their part, Jewish dialogue spokespersons are often challenged to listen to Palestinian suffering.

Practical dialogue has proven to be more effective than formal theological dialogue. Over the last two centuries, immense religious resources have been used overseas to advance the well-being of people through education, health and development projects. Egalitarian partnerships between donors and local community leaders transform foreign aid from a charity to a process of empowerment.

An alternative opportunity for reconciliation among monotheistic religions may lie at their historical roots, and not in their strategies of moderation. Religious institutions, like all social structures, tend over the passage of time to lose some of the core values of their original tenants. Early Christianity has carried the torch of unconditional love, forgiveness and personal spiritual renewal. Christianity has best been exemplified by the life of Jesus of Nazareth. But over the years, Christianity has been Hellenized, then Europeanized, and in recent centuries, due to proliferation of televangelism, it has become too Westernized. Critics of the modern Church today observe an institution that is too burdened with dogma and too distant from original Christian tenants.

Institutional Islam, meanwhile, has not escaped the impact of politics. It is surprising to observe today that Muslims are so conflicted about freedom of interpretation of their faith. To what extent is the dominant fear of open interpretation of "the Word" in Islam an artifact of politics?

In sum, a new ecumenical paradigm of dialogue might be found in the historical relations of the three monotheistic sister religions, rather in their adapting of their contemporary hierarchies. A new era of interfaith dialogue requires the birth of a new framework of teaching religion, a new way to practice dialogue and an affirmative perspective of the complementarities of faiths.

Ghassan Michel Rubeiz, a Lebanese American, is former secretary for the Middle East at the Geneva-based World Council of Churches. He wrote this commentary for The Daily Star.

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