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Inter-faith dialogue

Making up for lost time

By Brian Farran

A significant issue before the world community is the role that religion has begun to play in its influencing of popular movements, be they of the conservative right (as in the United States) or of the various associations with Islam. The implicit association of value-driven political or social initiatives derived from the theologies of the world faiths with significant and potentially divisive issues offers militant intellectual hijackers a field-day, as it were, given the lack of depth of theological understanding throughout most communities.

We are now living in a world community that can no longer be blasé about the world faiths, nor of the theology that under girds them. More than ever if we are to be aware we must be theologically literate, even of the Christian tradition that has so shaped Western culture. In fact, for those in the West, theology and its various sub-components could be a first alert for Westerners of the offence created by secularism to those who are adherents of other world faiths.

Christians too must become more respectful towards the theologies of the world faiths. Dr. David Wood in his brilliant book, a biography of the mind of Bishop John Taylor, Poet, Priest and Prophet makes this illuminating observation

“…the real question for us is ‘What is God up to in a religiously plural world? There is not much sense among Christians that in the plural religious scene God is offering humanity a new opportunity, nudging each religion out of its tendency to introspective self-reference, forcing us out of our self-enclosure to become public, so that we can insistently interrogate one another and enter into a lively, healthy and life-giving cross-fertilization, a healthy ‘theology of cross-reference’.”

This notion of a theology of cross-reference was first proposed by Bishop Kenneth Cragg, himself a distinguished scholar of world faiths. It is an arresting notion, and offers real possibilities of creative understanding and appreciation that could be far more substantial than the easy evangelistic approach that assumes it knows better, but in truth works from little understanding or valuing of the other.

Now theology in a University must be wide and spacious, and generous too in its breadth of coverage so that our society can deepen its respect of other world faiths and be given insights into the life-stances that these world faiths generate.  This outcome would be an important social gift to our community whose bewilderment might slide into defence or even aggression of some kind. Australian social life has been bumpy in its capacity to understand what is socially unknown and different.

There is a culture of suspicion that presupposes that religious passion will destroy social peace. This suspicion itself may achieve a similar result. The need is for access to information, to vocabularies, to grammar, to foundational ideas, to behavioural outcomes so that suspicion is allayed and appreciation can develop. The provision of the capacity to engage in a theology of cross-reference will, I consider, be a substantial contribution to the future well-being and harmony of our society.  This is a gift that can be developed collaboratively by both Church and University.

The new pluralism of religious faiths within Australia has taken many of the general public by surprise. Our population has noticed differences in dress code, the voices of unfamiliar languages, even appreciated the variety introduced into our cuisine choices, but has failed to recognize that significantly underlying this cultural diversity were other religions. Of these religions, most of us know very little, including the professionals within the Christian tradition.  It is only within the last few years that there has been any intentional effort to engage with, for instance, Muslim clerics.

We in Australia have been much slower than our counterparts in the United Kingdom. For instance, the Diocese of Bradford in the Church of England has forged significant cross-cultural links with Muslim clerics. In that region that has known ethnic hatred and violence, dialogue and social co-operation have proven both possible and cathartic. We could learn much from the open, patient and persistent approaches of the Church of England.

Indeed, in the kind of dialogue that does need to become normative Christians will need to adopt attitudes that give hospitable space for conversation and for disagreement whilst recognizing that such conversations, if they are to go forward, will cost both parties. This will be an exacting exercise simply because we will come face-to-face with contradictions and the need to sustain these contradictions and live within the consequent tension.

We are being called to the kind of conversation that is new to us, especially to those Christians that have ‘a crusading mind’. Much of Christian history is the outcome of the crusading mind, so each of us, no matter our liberality, will have to jettison some native attitudes in order really to be present to the other of another world faith.

For Christians within a nation that has been shaped by its isolation as Australia has been shaped, it is akin to emerging from a cultural cocoon. This cocoon has insulated us from the necessary and urgent conversations that Christians in other places have been having for at least the past thirty years. Even these Christians have acknowledged that they too have suffered from hundreds of years of isolation, with Christianity oblivious to Islam, for instance, even though Britain itself has a significant Muslim population since the 1960s.

One of the more generous minds who opened up inter-faith dialogue in England was the late Bishop John Taylor.  John Taylor drew on his vast experience as head of the English Church Missionary Society and his imaginative theological mind, as well as his natural courtesy and humility. These attributes melded into a mind that could sensitively propose respectful dialogue.

Taylor wrote in 1977 in preparation for the 1978 Lambeth Conference a paper The Theological Basis of Interfaith Dialogue. In this paper Taylor noted:

“Christians ought not to imagine that there is anything particularly new or radical in [an] open attitude to the other great faiths. In spite of the long isolation of the Middle Ages and the theology of exclusive salvation which is familiar to us, there has always been in the Jewish-Christian tradition another more inclusive view of the wideness of God’s grace and redemption…

“The covenant with Noah embracing all the sons of men and, indeed, all creation, reverberates through the words of much later prophets and psalmists…Therefore any sense of exclusive privilege on the part of a particular religion, including the Church, lays it open to a stringent judgement in comparison to the other faiths…”

This attitude is more a “crucified mind than a crusading mind”, to borrow the lovely phrase of Kosuke Koyama.

This kind of dialogue cannot just be a tame pursuit for common ground, although establishing common ground can be helpful. This dialogue must be more visceral and uncover the particular ‘jealousies’ that each faith has and that are deeply embedded in the psyches of their practitioners. Each faith, including what appears like relativism in Hinduism, has its particular absolutes.

As I said a moment ago, such a dialogue that opens us up to our core beliefs and the core beliefs of others requires a humble approach. John Taylor in that 1977 essay warned that:

“If we are not ready to lower our defences, if in fact we are more interested in scoring points than in knowing one another, we may as well give up dialogue altogether.”

Critiquing is an aspect of this dialogue and that can be painful and disturbing.

I think that such dialogue is vital and urgent.  The more that those violent, random acts that occur across the world can be loosely associated with particular religions in the popular mind, the more necessary this dialogue is. Indeed, Australians will need to become acquainted with the thought-worlds of world faiths, including Christianity. Mature knowledge of Christianity is, I surmise, at a low level in Australia that now has a third generation deeply disconnected from the usual carriers of the Christian tradition.

The Right Reverend Dr Brian Farran is Anglican Bishop of Newcastle. This is an edited extract from his 2005 Morpeth Lecture.


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