01-05-2009 - Traces, n. 5

new world

Dialogue: Inter-religious
or Inter-cultural?

On April 21st in Washington, DC, at the very same venue and almost exactly one year since the Pope’s memorable speech on inter-religious and inter-cultural dialogue, Crossroads Cultural Center–with the co-sponsorship of the John Paul II Cultural Center and The Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation–organized a public panel discussion entitled, “The Purpose of Dialogue is to Discover the Truth: Cultural Implications of Religions in Public Life.”

by Suzanne Tanzi

Crossroads’ ambitious undertaking in venturing into the realm of religious dialogue was inspired by the Pope, as Barbara Gagliotti explained to a packed auditorium this past April:  “We love the truth; furthermore, it is our faith and our conviction that the truth is real.  What moves and sustains this judgment?  Someone has taken initiative in some form toward us.  For us Christians, it is ‘Jesus of Nazareth. He, we believe, is the eternal Logos who became flesh in order to reconcile man to God and reveal the underlying reason of all things’” (Benedict XVI, Address to Representatives of Other Religions). And so we risk ourselves: “Dialogue, for us, is a method of getting at the truth… witnessing to the experience of something real that has awakened hope in us, and it is the ardent desire to discover the origin of the hopeful signs–people and events–we encounter in the world around us.  This is our contribution to religious and cultural dialogue, our determination not to surrender in the search for the truth.”
The event brought five outspoken personalities to the table: Archbishop Pietro Sambi, Apostolic Nuncio of the Holy See to the United Nations; Marcello Pera, Former President of the Italian Senate, co-author of Without Roots: The West, Relativism, Christianity and Islam with Joseph Ratzinger, and author of Why We Must Call Ourselves Christians (with a preface letter by Pope Benedict XVI); David Farber, Esq., member of the American Jewish Committee and the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington; Imam Yahja Hendi, Muslim Chaplain at Georgetown University and member of the Islamic Jurisprudence Council of North America; and Dr. David Schindler, Dean of the Pope John Paul II Institute on Marriage and Family Life at the Catholic University of America.

Coming to the truth.This forum revisited some of the issues highlighted in the Pope’s speech of April 2008, examining how their impact may have resonated over the year gone by and, indeed, put into effect the Holy Father’s exhortation to embrace such opportunities.  During a moment in history that calls for a new look at what it means to “dialogue” and why, this event seems not only timely but historically essential.  How can parties communicate from across chasms of differences? Do such efforts yield anything or are they a vain waste of time for which we congratulate our ecumenical selves?
These questions were in our minds and hearts as Archbishop Sambi opened the floor by pointing out that while one might address it from different angles–John Paul II had a practical approach, whereas Benedict XVI’s emphasis is largely theological–the Church is one of the world’s most strident advocates of religious interchange as a way of coming to the truth. 
His Eminence introduced Marcello Pera, “a perfect example that dialogue is possible. He, a non-believer, wrote a book with Cardinal Ratzinger!” Pera wryly corrected him: “I am not a non-believer. I am a believer who just doesn’t know what I believe in!” The Italian senator was in earnest, however, to point out that he is “not a supporter of inter-religious dialogue, which is impossible.” He explained his view that dialogue does not mean just conversation, but it takes place when “a proponent tries to convince an opponent.” Dialogue attempts to prove something is wrong, but this doesn’t work for religion–“would you deny Christ or Mohammed?”–unless one is a syncretist or a relativist. However, religions have cultural consequences; at the inter-cultural level, the dialogue can begin to move: “You can try to convince someone that one set of moral/ethical conclusions are better than another on a cultural level.”
Why all this talk of inter-religious dialogue? According to Pera, it is one of the trends in the serious crisis of the West as it enters into “a kind of apostasy of Christianity” that is defined by secularism and scientism. Pera believes that Western society has brought inter-religious dialogue to the fore to retain some self-respect, while avoiding its own responsibility. Its guilt syndrome is manifested by “apologizing to everyone.” He concludes, “It’s one thing to have defects, but it is quite another to reject our cultural roots. I hope we will not have to pay too high a price for this.”

Back a thousand years. Nonplussed by the gravity of Pera’s concerns, David Farber, “a Jew and a practicing lawyer,” pointed to a brighter future. While this very gathering took place on the day of Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance, Farber noted, “we are here in this discussion choosing life over death right now.” His confidence in present and future dialogue derives from commonalities among peoples of the Abrahamic faith traditions. He recalled that inter-faith relationships date back a thousand years, strongly in evidence for example from the 13th–15th centuries, particularly in the time of the Spanish Maimonides, a Jewish theologian who was open to Islamic sources of wisdom. The key to true exchange, says Farber, is “an incredibly important” tenet of Judaism: “Repair the World in the Kingship of God”–that is, social action. “This is how I keep open the deeper questions of meaning in my public life, and it is not simply a cultural issue but it is really and deeply a religious one at its core.”
Up next was Imam Hendi, whose “training by a Baptist preacher” was fully in evidence as he began enthusiastically with his assertion that “inter-religious dialogue is not only possible, it is required,” but it is always a choice, a choice to recognize each other as members of one human family, that of God. In Arabic, the word truth, he continued, is “an attribute of God. So dialogue of truth is to discover God.” While we are all lowly creatures, “dust,” we aspire to discover ourselves in imitation of God as loving, compassionate, merciful peace bearers, united to other “dustians.” We are made free by God, but we are all wandering in the desert; we left Pharaoh but Pharaoh–as egotism and self-centeredness–did not leave us.  Our dialogue must be transformed into “dia-practice.” Hendi brought his animated presentation to a close with a call to all people of the one God, one humanity, to take responsibility, to respond to the will of God for social justice.

With free eyes. Professor Schindler began with this theme of responsibility, as it was defined in Benedict XVI’s 2008 speech: Religious leaders need to take human questions and place them at the forefront of dialogue. But certain conditions are needed. First, “you can only see reality truly with free eyes as a free man.” And there needs to be stillness at the heart of life; “time in each moment reveals eternity.” Most important is the realization that all is given, made by Another; reality is a gift to be received. This is the only way we can recognize the dignity of the human person. Schindler pointed out that “we are only free when we are in a state of wonder.”  The loss of awareness of the “givenness” of things drains everything of its foundations (as is the case with the United Nations, for example). Pope Benedict reminded us that such dissipation threatens our very civilization, specifically stating, “Technological civilization is not morally neutral.” Life only has meaning when formed around the search for God. A purely juridical State–which protects self-interest–undermines democratic values. The profound difficulty of this age, Schindler underscored, is humanity’s loss of its capacity to wonder.
Farber had pointed out common bonds between the Abrahamic traditions and Hendi saw even further to uniting the entire “dustian” human race, both views exercised in social action.  Dr. Schindler saw broader connections based on our common awareness of time, wonder, and human experience. In fact, a meeting of cultures is possible only in looking at human experience. Here, we come to know that man is one being, living together with the mystery of giftedness that we share. “It is not relativism that is confirmed but the human condition that is in contact with something greater than we are.”
While discordant notes were struck (during the free exchange after the presentations) between Pera’s insistence that inter-religious dialogue does not exist and Farber and Hendi’s pro-dialogue outlooks, Pera was quick to clarify that, in practice, “discussions can help us drop obstacles to dialogues…”  The speakers did not solve anything; they opened the question wider and wider with every exchange and comment as they delved deeper together, fully engaging the audience for two hours of witness and enquiry.
One businessman in the audience commented, “I realized that the reason I can be open to the experience of another is my certainty in what I believe and my conviction that in the other I can discover more about this.” Clearly, a change had been catalyzed. What had come into play was Dr. Schindler’s insistence that the key point of dialogue must be experience, which he defined as “the willingness to account for, to the end, all of ourselves.” And so deep friendship–trust–is important. “Where would I start? I would say the most basic reality of my life is that God is love. Do you have this experience? We need to enter into this dialogue with the willingness to expose ourselves.” The mutual interest between the speakers, most of whom had never met but who planned to deepen the discussion over e-mail and maybe a dinner invitation or two, validated the words of moderator Barbara Gagliotti: “The encounter with the truth does not close our interest; rather, it intensifies it. The encounter with the truth changes us; we have to make room for it.”