Religious Dialogue

Byline: January 8th, 2009

When I was growing up, most of us believed that as we entered the 21st century, we would live to see a more enlightened world—a world in which the forces of reason would eventually triumph over ignorance and technological advances would transform a world of scarcity into a world of abundance. Most of us thought that the religious wars were a disease of the past. If anything, we grew up believing the world was more threatened by the forces of Communism and its struggle against the free and capitalistic West.

How wrong-headed many of us were! Peace seems more elusive now than ever. Once again, ideological wars have morphed into something few of us ever anticipated seeing— the resurgence of religious wars. Here we stand, once again, with hundreds of religions and philosophies still engaged in the centuries-old contest to win over the hearts and minds of the human species! Some religions seek to destroy all others; others are interested in benignly incorporating the surrounding nonbelievers under their particular banner of faith—much like a large fish swallows a smaller fish.

Every Eastern and Western religion must broaden its tolerance of religious and philosophical diversity. The idea that there is a supremacy of one ethnicity over another, or the ascendancy of one religion at the expense of another, creates an ambiance of intolerance where the cacophonous sounds of preachers drown out the words of their fellow preachers. Irrespective of whether one thinks of religion as humankind’s greatest quest for self-discovery or, conversely, sees religion as a form of self-propagating spiritual virus, none of us can avoid being affected by the God Wars. The horror of the September 11, 2001 attacks, caused a sudden and jolting realization: that the same religious conflicts that have brought death and destruction in the Middle East are now an inescapable and permanent part of our psychological and societal landscape.

I wonder: are the world’s inhabitants singly unable to achieve peace? Are we condemned to repeat the errors and mistakes of the past? It seems to me that peace requires more than nuclear, military or economic disarmament. Peace can ultimately be obtained only when accompanied by cultural disarmament. To achieve cultural disarmament, religious leaders everywhere must urge their followers to abandon a belief in religious absolutism and forge a true reconciliation and peace through ongoing inter-cultural dialogues.

I believe with all my heart that there are many paths that lead to the Divine, while there are other paths that clearly do not. Yet despite the doctrinal differences affecting the world’s great religions, each and every faith does teach a philosophy of perennial wisdom that provides every follower with the wisdom and the tools to cross the great cultural and religious divide.

One of my favorite theologians, Raimundo Pannikar, stresses the importance of intra-faith dialogue. Pannikar argues that for one faith to become tolerant of the other, it is imperative for each person to see faith through the eyes of his neighbor. Too often we get bogged down in judging the other person’s faith before we really understand what the other person’s faith personally means to him or her. If we are ever going to end the God Wars, it is vital we adopt a new approach that is embracing and unifying, rather than intolerant and divisive.

Such an approach would encourage people to let go of old prejudices and the old worn out arguments which create a polemical and adversarial atmosphere. Seeing through the eyes of our neighbor does not mean we must accept the other’s view or belief system as our own—but it will give us insight into where our coreligionist is coming from. Differences must come to be expected and accepted within a “both-and” mindset, rather than a “right-wrong” mindset.

Whether our religious beliefs are vastly different, or we simply practice a different level of observance of the same religion, an open-minded approach which allows for these differences and steers clear of condemnation or falling into the right-wrong trap will certainly benefit all of us as we find that our values are not so different after all.

As spiritual leaders, we must crease a series of forums involving clergy and lay leaders from the various faiths in our community. Hopefully, these forums will both tear down some of the walls which keep us stuck in a mindset of intolerance and will also allow us to identify, appreciate and expand the ground we hold in common with one another. Not only will these programs be helpful in understanding a variety of perspectives, but ideally our Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, and Islamic neighbors will walk away with a greater appreciation for what each faith has to say about the issues of the day in a communal effort to let religion become the healing force God intended it to be.

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