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01 September 2011

Why inter-religious dialogue is liberating

Why inter-religious dialogue is liberating

by Professor Ian Linden, director of policy, Tony Blair Faith Foundation

Here are three premises. The first is Paul writing to the Corinthians: "Now this Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom." The second is a "conviction of faith that God's plan of salvation for humanity is one and reaches out to all peoples". The third is that the "fruits of the Spirit of God in the religious tradition of peoples testifies to God's saving and revealing action among them and through their history".

The last two are the words of a Jesuit theologian, Jacques Dupuis, who has struggled with a theology of religious pluralism, gaining censure from the Vatican for his pains. The last may be the most contentious for many Christians. Yet it is only if the last premise be true that interfaith dialogue makes much sense. Making sense for a Christian can mean many things. But it must, at some level, mean understanding more deeply God's love for the world, sensing it in others, or to use the fashionable phrase in "the Other".

Religious pluralism

The word "praxis" smacks of philosophy classrooms and left-wing intellectuals in full flood. So to claim that inter-religious dialogue is a "praxis of liberation" sounds pretentious and overblown. Better to say that the first act of a lived religious pluralism is inter-religious dialogue, meaning working together in compassion and obedience, discovering who is my neighbour.

By working together for the Common Good with people of other faiths, new insights are afforded as a fruit of friendship, about yourself, as much as about "the Other"; and this friendship provides a new and safe space for a deepening in understanding of each faith. Inter-religious dialogue that is "hands to heart to head" is a "praxis of liberation" in that it can lead to truth and freedom. Or in Anselm's words, it is "fides quaerens intellectum", faith seeking knowledge, through friendship.

This is not to downgrade the dialogue of theological and textual discussion, scriptural reasoning, the anti-clockwise process of "head to heart to hands". In fact it might be called the other half of the dialogue cycle. But only a small scholarly minority have the head for it while most people have the hands for working together.

There has been much scholarly energy unleashed by the historic Muslim initiative, "A Common Word between Us and You", sent to Christian religious leaders in 2007. Inspiring responses and discussion groups resulted. What has emerged to date is that love of God and love of neighbour in the different traditions are a core concern for fruitful scholarly conversation. Yet this debate cannot fulfil its potential, as its participants acknowledge, unless it leads to new friendships, and obedient action reflecting a merciful and compassionate God, and makes its insights cascade down to local communities.

Liberate from what? I would say an implicit or explicit ideology of rejection, of hardened hearts, an exclusivity masquerading as faith, a perverse idea of holiness as superiority. That was what Jesus denounced repeatedly about the religion of the Pharisees. Muslims call those practising it takfiri. But also for Western Christians, liberation from blindness to more than the parochial: that the vast majority of the world's poor perceive their "ultimate concern and symbolise their struggle for liberation in the idiom of non-Christian religion and culture", to quote from the Indian theologian, Aloysius Pieris.

The dialogue cycle

The Tony Blair Faith Foundation is promoting the dialogue cycle. Our schools programme prepares young people for respectful conversation in the classroom about students' faiths and their contribution to solving the major problems of the 21st century. We train teachers in adapting our standard set of modules. They in turn prepare their classes for membership of an online community linking schools, to date, in 17 different countries. A three-way video conference, with a secure website to follow up friendships after classroom discussion, brings them together. There has been great interest from governments in the programme in predominantly Muslim countries as well, for example, India, the US and Canada.

Our universities' course, Faith and Globalisation, aims at opening up dialogue about religion in the modern world to participants beyond divinity schools and scripture scholars. It takes in the next age-cohort and, to date, involves lead universities in seven countries. The course is a template modified according to local academic interests so that students at Yale, Durham, McGill, University of Western Australia, Monterrey, Peking, and Singapore cover similar core material but deal with faith issues relevant to their cultural context.

On the clockwise side of the cycle is the Faiths Act programme aimed at realising the full potential of the faith communities in accomplishing the Millennium Development Goals, a vision shared with Micah Challenge. We have chosen the prevention of malaria deaths as the focus of an international campaign led by Faiths Act Fellows, interfaith pairs, 20 to 27-year-olds working to mobilise, fundraise, and link faith communities in the US, Canada, UK and India with, to date, communities in malaria endemic regions of Africa and parts of India. We have recently launched a national anti-malaria campaign in Sierra Leone in association with the Inter-Religious Council, Ministry of Health and Christian Health Association.

As Tony Blair said, launching the first cohort of Fellows in Los Angeles in September 2008: "As change-makers for current and future generations, young people have the opportunity to establish a new vision of interreligious interaction that places protecting the welfare of the world's poorest at its centre." Call it the "praxis of liberation" if you like.

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