Interfaith Dialogue and Culture

Conversations with a visiting bishop from Pakistan yesterday highlighted for me once again the great difficulty of interfaith dialogue. While we in the United States, and so many in the West, seek to put the best face on Islam, consider it one of the three great “Abrahamic faiths,” and seek mutual understanding, tolerance, and even cooperation where possible, there are Christians in other parts of the world with a very different perspective.

It reminds me of a moment at the Lambeth Conference in 1998 when there was a session on “interfaith dialogue.” A bishop from one part of the world spoke of the richness of interfaith dialogue and the deepening of relationships and mutual understanding, an African bishop from the same podium exclaimed, “If they would just stop killing us, we would be glad to initiate a dialogue!”

This is not so much due to the fact that there are different “Islams” — there is a certain unity in Islam (even with the Sunni, Shiah, Sufi divisions) that Christianity, and perhaps even Judaism, lacks. It seems to me more a factor of culture and context. Muslims — like the rest of us — are products of their nationalities and upbringing and cultural contexts.

Political frustrations — and the resultant violence too often — are brought about by marginalization, arrested economic development, poverty, demographics and the environment among many other factors. If we are to engage productively in interfaith dialogue, we must first of all understand the essence of the religions themselves. But we must also take very seriously the cultural context in which each of our religions is lived out.

This can be very tricky indeed. But it is absolutely essential in our day. For, as Hans Kung has said,

“No peace among the nations without peace among the religions.

No peace among the religions without dialogue between the religions.

No dialogue among the religions without investigation of the foundations of the religions.”

And those foundations include the cultural as well as the theological ones.       

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