THE DYNAMICS OF INTERRELIGIOUS DIALOGUE TOWARDS INTELLECTUAL FORMATION INDIA EXPERIENCE

George Allayor, CM[*]

I. Inter-Religious Dialogue – A Practical Experience as a Model.

Recently the Catholic Bishops of Karnataka, India visited Shivakumara Swamiji, the spiritual head of Siddaganga Math (a Hindu monastery) and spent sometime in the Math exchanging pleasantries and talking to each other. It was a courtesy visit intended to build up a good relationship and reach out to the other in a true Christian spirit of friendship and charity. During this visit, no religious matters were discussed, no prayers held, yet it was the meeting of the spiritual heads of two major religions in India. At the end of this encounter both the parties were satisfied with the outcome of this event and felt themselves greatly enriched. And there was a smile on their faces, expressing cordiality and friendship. Later, after the meeting, Rt. Rev. Henry D’Souza, the Bishop of Bellary described it as a “spiritual encounter” and remarked, “We all very much loved it. Deeper study of any stream of the spirituality takes us closer to God”. Profusely impressed by this visit, the Swamiji acknowledged that “such visits will go a long way in founding peace and amity among all religions.”

This was dialogue in action. And it was a welcome gesture indeed, especially in the wake of recent attacks on Christian communities and churches by Hindu fundamentalists. When we talk of Inter-Religious Dialogue, I feel that this could be adapted as a perfect model in our attempt at dialoguing with believers of other faiths and establishing a strong bond of oneness and unity with our fellow wayfarers.

Inter-Religious Dialogue is an attempt to relate to the rest of the world in a meaningful and relevant way at the level of inter-personal relationships and spiritual communion. Etymologically the word religion is derived from the Latin word “religare” meaning to bind. In a way the concept itself underlines the broader understanding of religion itself, which when etymologically interpreted would mean the bond or the relationship that exists among the believers.  If the nature of religion is to bind together the believers of a particular community of faith, then inter-religious dialogue in the wider sense strives to unite the believers of all religions in the common bond of human brotherhood and universal peace.

 

II. Inter-Religious Dialogue – Basic Assumptions:

From the teachings of the church and its documents we can explicitly point out the following perceptives of convergence as some of the primary elements involved in the basic concept of inter-religious dialogue.

 

  1. The universal salvific grace and will of God for all peoples of the earth.
  2. The universal action of the Holy Spirit. Following Vat II, Redemptoris Missio, has more clearly emphasized the presence of the Holy Spirit not only on men of good will, taken individually, but also in society and history, in peoples, in cultures, in religions, always in reference to Christ( RM 28, 29).
  3. The centrality of Christ and the church as the sacrament of God’s plan and economy of salvation. Today many theologians and Christological perceptives while holding to the centrality of Christ and the church in the economy of salvation tend to avoid negative and exclusive expressions and emphasize the universal salvific will of God and the action of the Holy Spirit, as categorically affirmed in the New Testament witness of Jesus’ ministry and proclamation.
  4. The salvific value of other religions. The role of other religions in the economy of salvation still remains an open question. However, it is not explicitly negative. This is a matter of contention and the teachings of the church are to be interpreted from the aspect of Christian faith and doctrines of the church. Theologians like Karl Rahner insists on the universal salvific will of God and the availability of salvation in Christ to all humans. According to him this salvation is available in and through the religions that they live.
  5. The universal vision of common destiny, world community, God’s providence and concern for all. The dynamics of inter-religious dialogue leads us to the conviction that together with others we form one community, stemming from the one stock which God created to people the entire earth. Sharing the same common destiny and God’s providence, we are called to travel the same paschal pilgrimage with Christ to the One Father of us all.
  6. The Criteria: A positive appreciation of other religions from the Catholic perceptive does not mean that they are parallel or complementary ways to God or salvation. God’s plan of salvation is one and the history of salvation has a structure to which all religions are integrated. John Paul affirms, “The entire human race, in the infinite complexity of history, with its different cultures, is ‘called to form the new people of God’ (LG 13) in which the blessed union of God with man and the unity of the human family are healed, consolidated, and raised up.” (Talk to the Roman Curia, Dec,22,1986.No.6)

 

III. The Basis – Towards the First Step:

 

The first step towards Inter-Religious dialogue is the appreciation and recognition of other religions as co-existing in the world with the ‘seeds of the Word’ and inherent goodness present in them. The basis of the church’s need for inter-religious dialogue and the relationship with other religions is governed by a twofold respect;

  1. Respect for every human person in his/her quest for answers to the deepest questions of his/her inner life and spiritual aspirations, and
  2. Respect for the action of the spirit in every human person.

Ever since Vat II, this change of church’s attitude towards other religions is very evident from the documents of the church and statements of the heads of the church in various parts of the world. In his address to the Bishops of Syro-Malankara church of India during their Ad Limina visit on 13th May, 2003, Pope John Paul II rightly acknowledged the spiritual traditions and dynamics of Christians in India. He states that “the people of India rightly take pride in their rich cultural and spiritual heritage , expressed in the innate characteristics of contemplation, simplicity, harmony, detachment, non-violence, discipline, frugal living, the thirst for learning and philosophical inquiry which distinguish those living on the subcontinent.”

The above statement of the Pope is also a serious invitation to look into our own spiritual heritages and place the intellectual and spiritual formation of our candidates in the contextual and formative frame work of our own rich social, cultural and religious milieu and adapt formation programmes and strategies that go in line with the contextual exigencies and challenges of priestly and consecrated life.

The call of Vatican II for Interreligious dialogue was seriously taken up by the Indian Church as is clear from the following events.

  1. The Interfaith Seminar on Islamlogy held on Oct, 1965 at Nagpur, the Hindu Christian Dialogue at Ooty in 1967, the Ecumenical Consultation and Dialogue at Bombay in 1969.
  2. Different centers were started for a constant dialogue with Indian culture and religions. A host of conferences, workshops and seminars were conducted during the years 1966-1974. The CBCI established a Commission for Dialogue with other Religions and Non- believers in the year 1969.
  3. Besides conducting a number of inter–religious dialogues, this commission also arranged a series of multi-lateral live-together programmes, which also had a significant number of Muslims.

 

IV. The Meaning and Aims of Inter- Religious Dialogue.

 

The CBCI gathering of 1974 stated that “Inter-religious dialogue is the process of response of Christian Faith to God’s saving presence in the religious traditions of mankind and the expression of the hope of the fulfillment of all things in Christ”. An important step towards inter-religious dialogue was taken up by the Indian Church in the Patna National Consultation on evangelization (Oct, 1973). It stressed the need for dialogue with the Muslim community. The Patna session also defined dialogue as “the response of Christian charity to the fact of religious pluralism.” At the same time, it also underlined the basic aims of dialogue as:

  1. Self purification, and
  2. Helping one to form oneself before the Mystery leading to a shared religious experience.

 

Besides, we can also point out the following objectives of dialogue, as

  1. Towards harmony of religions and a theology of religions
  2. To enrich the universal church and its theological perceptives.
  3. To promote universal peace and harmony.
  4. To promote religious freedom, individual dignity and human rights.
  5. To promote values of justice, equality and individual and religious freedom.
  6. To join hands together in the fight against poverty, corruption and political          instability, and work for the liberation of the poor and the most marginalized.

 

V. Attitudes Towards Dialogue and Pre-Requisites:

The most important component that goes in for making dialogue a mutually receptive and cordial exercise is the mental frame work and the attitude with which it is undertaken. Sharing of spiritual experiences and a profound knowledge of other religions will definitely help the dialogue partners to listen and understand each other in a better perceptive. The dynamics of dialogue must be rooted in charity, mutual respect and appreciation. Besides shedding prejudices, false assumptions and superiority complexes, a purposeful dialogue calls for the willingness to forgo false securities and the sense of self sufficiency and enter into a real pilgrimage of hope in our search for the Eternal. Hence, dialogue calls for the cultivation of the following attitudes.

 

  1. 1. Learning. The spiritual experiences, religious traditions and customs of other religions have a lot to offer us in our search for the Truth and the Ultimate Reality. In fact, the scriptures of other religions are store houses of wisdom, spiritual insights and learning. A true seeker of truth and an enthusiastic student in search of real wisdom have a lot to learn from them.
  1. Listening. Dialogue calls for patient and careful listening to the other. We should be prepared to listen to what they have to say about themselves and also about us. Sometimes, what they have to say about us may not be very pleasing to our ears. If we are open minded and are willing to listen and to be criticized by others, it can become occasions for us to correct ourselves, shed our egoistic tendencies and reach out to others with greater simplicity.
  2. Collaboration. The attitudes of learning and listening generate good will among individuals and communities and they lead to a spirit of greater collaboration. The willingness to talk to each other openly, co-operate generously and work together in solidarity automatically creates an atmosphere of peace, understanding and harmony in the society.

 

VI. Guidelines for Inter-Religious Dialogue:

 

The CBCI Commission for Dialogue issued a series of guidelines for inter-religious dialogue (GID) in 1977 and updated it in 1989, which forms a basis instrument to study the reception of inter-religious dialogue in India.  The GID states that in the Indian search for the final destiny, the active presence of God’s spirit was acknowledged. Further, it says that dialogue partners needed words and signs for communicating the God experience but none of these expressions do not completely present the comprehensible postulates about the Reality. Hence, it becomes the duty of the church, which itself is a sign of unity in the world, to be open for dialogue. GID again states that the aim of dialogue was not to make converts but to bear witness to one’s faith and be enriched by the religious values and experiences found in others.

Further, the Commission says, “the plurality of religions is a consequence of the richness of creation itself and of the manifold grace of God. Though coming from the same source, peoples have perceived the universe and articulated their awareness of the divine mystery in manifold ways, and God has surely been present in these historical undertakings of his children. Such pluralism therefore is in no way to be deplored but rather acknowledged as itself a divine gift.”

 

VII. The Scope and the Content of Inter-Religious Dialogue:

According to GID the scope of dialogue included profound study of the religious heritage of others, common prayers, live-together, common enterprises in economic, social, cultural and political levels. At the same time, Christianity basically being a proselytizing religion, our efforts to enter into dialogue with others can be misinterpreted as yet another attempt to evangelize and convert others to our faith. Evangelization and discussion of religious matter cannot as such form the subject matter and basis of dialogue. If so, the process of dialogue can become futile and even self-contradictory and hazardous. The purpose of dialogue, on the other hand is to enhance our social and personal relationships and build a society based on the principles of peace, love and fraternity. It can never fully be a religious or intellectual activity to prove the veracity of one’s faith content through discussions and arguments. To be cordial and effective, dialogue has to spring from the heart and not from the realm of theological or intellectual speculations. As the expression of the response of Christian charity to other religions, dialogue must be ‘other oriented’ and it should help us to build strong one-to-one inter-personal relationships with believers of other faiths. This alone can lead us to understand, appreciate and support each other and take us to the path of mutual respect, religious tolerance and peaceful co-existence in the society.

 

VIII. Towards Dialogue and Intellectual Formation:

 

We should be able to read the signs of the times and develop an authentic programme of formation rooted in our culture and social milieu. Grasping the gist of Asian culture, Pope John Paul II affirmed, “all are to have appropriate formation and training which should be Christ centered… with emphasis on personal sanctity and witness; their spirituality and lifestyle should be sensitive to the religious heritage of the people among whom they live and whom they serve (Ecclesia in Asia.No.44).” A solid formation programme is necessary to strengthen the spiritual identity of our formees and give them the necessary basis, convictions and tools to confront the challenges of the fast changing social, cultural and economic realities of globalization and other challenges of priestly life.

A profound understating of other religions and cultures widens one’s intellectual horizon and leads to a richer spiritual experience of the Reality. At the same time, formation is not a mere intellectual activity whereby we try to add something new to the mind or subtract something old. It is accompanying the candidates on their journey to discover and unveil the glimpse of the Reality already present within them, which sometimes remains blurred due to lack of adequate training, proper motivation and right formation of conscience.

Explosion of knowledge and easy access to specialization in various branches of sciences has helped us to have better and qualified formators, with specific training and aptitude in the areas of their specialization and study.  Although today, we hold the students largely responsible for their own formation and confine the role of a formator in accompanying them as guide, friend and philosopher, we should not minimize the part that every formator has to play in motivating and guiding our students with his experiences, timely corrections and wise directions. The attempt of a formator in the faculty of a formation house to confine himself to intellectual imparting of information on the given topic and solely assessing the intellectual performance of students can be quite detrimental to the spiritual formation of the candidates. Specialization in formation should not lead us to professionalism and careerism as a form of access to modernity and under the pretext of approaching the modern world. What is more important is the quality of our life, which is the basis and raison d’etre of our priestly life. As Benedict XVI puts it, “In the face of the temptation of relativism or the permissive society, there is absolutely no need for the priest to know all the latest changing currents of thought; what the faithful expect from him is to be a witness to the eternal wisdom contained in the revealed Word. Solitude for the quality of personal prayer and for good theological formation bears fruit in life.”(Priests: “promoters of the encounter between man and God”, Talk to the clergy in the Cathedral of Warsaw, May 25, 2006)

 

Formators and formees have to realize that our mission and commitment consist in communicating to others the love of God as revealed in the plan of salvation. Theological formation and spiritual learning should lead to a reawakening of faith, hope and love among those who are in formation together with the missionary enthusiasm of St. Vincent and the prophetic spirit of Christ, the Evangelizer of the poor. A deeper understanding of the spirituality and religious experiences of other religions will go a long way in helping the candidates to discover his own inner aspirations, motivations and inner strength.

IX. The Task of Inter-Religious Dialogue and Intellectual Formation.

In the given circumstances, defining the task of intellectual formation in the Indian context of religious pluralism is a challenging one. Perhaps, we can identify the following areas as some of the priorities in our attempt to dialogue with others.

 

  1. The formulation of a Relational Theology which can serve as a basis for dialogue.
  2. Towards a philosophy of dialogue and life, which stresses a change of life patterns, liturgical celebrations, and inculturation to bring about a sense of identity with our cultural and social milieu.
  3. Towards a universal vision of world realities and mankind originating from the same stem with common visions, aspirations and ultimate goals of life.
  4. Towards a Spirituality based on the principles of the Universal Fatherhood of God and the Cosmic Brotherhood of Man.
  5. Towards a meaningful and relevant spiritual life style and an integral vision of spirituality.
  6. Towards a lifestyle oriented towards international peace based on the values of justice, equality and freedom.
  7. Towards an intellectual formation of our candidates that helps them to be fully human and fully alive, while at the same time promoting meaningful inter-personal relationships with persons both within the community and outside.
  8. Towards the formulation of a theology and spirituality at the horizontal level, i.e. from below or at the grass root level. Inter-Religious dialogue to be effective and practical has to be supported by a theology and spirituality that can address the sociological and religious aspirations of human existence at the grass root level. The partners of dialogue engaged in this process must be authoritative role models and spoke persons of their respective religious ideals and spirituality.
  9. Towards a life of ethical discipline based on strong personal convictions, principles and values of life.
  10. Towards a Vincentian Missiology of Inter-Religious Dialogue for peaceful co-existence and apostolic works based on the principles of mutual respect, appreciation and understanding. Our students in formation should be helped to imbibe the need, relevance and dynamics of Inter-Religious Dialogue during their various stage of formation. Study of other religions, cultures and encounter with them through interactions and live together programmes should be given sufficient priority as part of their curriculum and mission experience.
  11. Organizing community living experience programmes, inter-religious prayer meeting, cultural exchange programmes and forums/centers for Inter-Religious Dialogue.

This joint meeting of APRF and CCC on the theme “Inter-Religious Dialogue” has certainly enriched us and widened the horizons of our intellectual pursuit. The input sessions, discussions and group sharings have immensely helped us to have a wider perspective of other religions and have motivated us to approach other faiths with greater respect and appreciation. But as formators our task is far from being over. The challenge before us will be to equip our seminarians as useful partners in the process of this dialogue and drive home the significance and relevance of Inter-Religious Dialogue in the exercise of Vincentian mission and charism. Let us earnestly hope that the streams of insights thrown in this direction will have a lasting effect in our endeavour to reach out to others in the spirit of Christian charity and Vincentian charism in building a new world order based on the principles of peace, harmony and good will.

 

 

(FR. George Ayalloor, C.M. is rector of De Paul Minor Seminary, Mysore, Southern Indian Province)


[*] Fr. George Ayalloor, C.M. is rector of De Paul Minor Seminary, Mysore, Southern Indian Province.

 

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