Becoming a Community of Communities

Alan Race has more experience than most of inter faith dialogue. Here he outlines the right approach to dialogue and the potential dividend for both ourselves and our society.

Becoming a Community of Communities
Interfaith Week (12th - 19th Nov) presents opportunities of many kinds for individuals and communities to work together for the common good, for shared understanding and for overcoming the fears associated with being different.

An American professor of religion once said that ‘the rightness of our religion is among the most intransigent and incorrigible of our cherished convictions; so much so that anyone who believes, thinks and acts differently is wrong. As a result, the experience of religious difference can evoke discomforting anxiety, if not full-blown fear.’ Interfaith Week is designed to overcome such fear.

However, my question for interfaith activists is as follows: at what point will you embrace interreligious dialogue as the necessary next step for overcoming the fears of difference? Can we allow cherished convictions to be examined afresh in the light of what we experience and value about our working with people of different religious convictions?

Interreligious dialogue is both a process and a new way of thinking theologically. Many theologians are more comfortable with the former rather than the latter which is perceived as being more controversial. It is controversial because we have inherited a view of religion as being fairly self-sufficient. All religions give their accounts of what they perceive to be wrong with the world and how their religious vision seeks to rectify that brokenness, but the encounter with ‘others’ who have equally strong convictions shakes up our self-sufficiencies. Dialogue assumes we can move beyond the self-sufficiency view of religious vision and practice as we experience the spirituality, ethics and sense of the sacred in neighbours and friends from different communities. Interfaith commitments sooner or later will need to embrace the dialogue which harbours expectations not just of social cohesion but also of enlarging our consciousness of whatever we mean by ‘God’.

Plainly, the religions are not all the same – we have different origins, histories and spiritualities. Yet neither are they all different, in the sense that no family resemblances can be discerned between them. We inhabit one earth and we have powers to exercise human empathy across many boundaries. Followers from many traditions seek spiritual vision and human transformation, no matter how variously these are shaped symbolically and worked out in practice. If we were all the same there would be no need to talk to one another; if we were hopelessly sealed in separate rooms there would be no possibility of talking at all!

The giving and receiving of dialogue is demanding spiritual work. For this reason, dialogue aims to embody relationships of trustful acceptance, critical friendship and mutual accountability. We are neither quick to judge nor uncritical in outlook. Worlds of difference really are strange to one another. Yet the ability to ‘speak across’ worlds of difference means that we are able to resonate with the authenticity of the subjective other. We are many communities yet one community; we are far apart yet belong together. In dialogue, we move between strangeness and resonance.

In dialogue, partners articulate their basic experiences and developing traditions in conversation with one another. They will then learn about each other and in particular be challenged to overcome stereotypical images of one another. Such images are deep-rooted and only hard listening will lead to their removal. As trust grows, participants learn tolerance of one another, yet they may still maintain a respectful distance. We exist alongside one another in parallel lives; even so, the negotiation of similarities and differences begins in earnest. Eventually, dialogue leads to a deeper interaction whereby participants move beyond tolerance and learn to live within the space between different basic visions. This is a space that is vulnerable and risky, but its fruit is the mutuality of belonging: we become what has been called a community of communities.

Alan Race is a retired clergyman, co editor of Beyond the Dysfunctional Family and chair of the Trustees of Modern Church.

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