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Toward Exacting and Constructive Dialogue

The dialogue we engage in must be anything but complaisant. The lack of trust that permeates our Western societies and the situations of religious conflict throughout the world mean that our task must be far-reaching, exacting, and rigorous. First of all, dialogue must be based on mutual knowledge achieved by our seeking to make clear our shared convictions, values, and hopes, while clearly defining and circumscribing our specificities, our differences and what may even be our disagreements. This is what is done in most interreligious groups, and I believe it is necessary to move in this direction. But this will not be enough: we have already said that the majority of women and men engaged in this kind of meetings are rather open and ready for the encounter. It is crucial that they describe and explain what they really represent in their religious families—what trend, the extent of it, their relations with the community as a whole, and so forth. It is important to know to whom one is speaking; it is no less essential to know to whom one is not speaking, and why. Interreligious dialogue should make it possible for each partner better to understand the various theories, the points shared, the differences and conflicts that are present in other traditions. It is a matter first of not deluding oneself that the other “represents,” for example, the whole of Hinduism, the whole of Buddhism, the whole of Judaism, the whole of Christianity, or the whole of Islam, and second of knowing what links and types of relations our partners have with their coreligionists.

To be involved in dialogue between religions while being completely cut off from the believers of one’s own religion is problematic and can be illusory. Many “specialists” in interreligious dialogue, who go from conference to conference, are totally disconnected from their religious community, as well as from grass-roots realities. This might be conceivable if it were a matter of purely theological discussions, but in most cases, unfortunately, that is not the case.38 How is it possible to have a real understanding of religious traditions and the dynamics that permeate them on the ground if those who dialogue are not actively involved in their communities? Again, how can one hope to influence believers more widely if the specialists’ circle is isolated in an ivory tower and does not report back on the nature of its work to each of the respective religious communities? So, two fundamental conditions for dialogue with the other emerge: first, to commit oneself, as far as possible, to giving an account of the shared work to one’s own faith community and second, in order to achieve that, to devote part of one’s energy to opening up intracommunal dialogue, which will make possible the advancement of real pluralism. This dialogue is extremely difficult, sometimes much more difficult than interreligious dialogue itself, because discussion with one’s nearest and dearest is so risky. This commitment is nevertheless essential if we want to break down internal ghettoes and sectarianism and try, within manageable limits, to respect one another more. It can never be said enough that intracommunal dialogue between Muslims is virtually nonexistent. Groups know one another, know how to identify one another and work out where they are in relation to one another, but then they immediately ignore one another, exclude one another or insult one another, without any attempt at discussion. Within one religious understanding, one current of thought, divisions are maintained by intervening organizations. The culture of dialogue has practically abandoned Muslim communities and the respect for diversity, which always has been and should have continued to be their source of richness, has been replaced by dueling disagreements that contribute to maintaining the division, which causes their weakness. Some still tentative initiatives have taken off, but the movement must become more general and must naturally go alongside involvement in dialogue with other traditions.

Apart from getting to know one another, it is also necessary to establish relationships of trust and respect. Trust is lacking today: we meet often, listen sometimes and distrust each other often. Trust needs time and support. The frequency and quality of meetings and the nature of the exchanges certainly help to create spaces for sincere encounter. However, it seems to me that four rules should be applied which may be quite demanding as preliminaries, but which are fundamentally constructive:

  1. Recognition of the legitimacy of each other’s convictions and respectfor them;
  2. Listening to what people say about their own scriptural sources andnot what we understand (or want to understand) from them;
  3. The right, in the name of trust and respect, to ask all possible questions, sometimes even the most embarrassing;
  4. The practice of self-criticism, which consists in knowing how to discern the difference between what the texts say and what our coreligionists make of them, and deciding clearly what our personal position is.

These rules are essential. One cannot enter into dialogue if one does not recognize the legitimacy of other people’s convictions. Not to share them is one thing, but not to recognize, deep in one’s heart, their right to be is another. Nor is it fitting to try to become an exegete of one’s partner’s scriptures. This is not our role or our area of expertise. It is for our partners to tell us what they understand or what their coreligionists understand, from such and such a text. Reading the Torah or the Bible for a Muslim, the Qur’an for a Jew or a Christian, or the Bhagavad Gita for all three is certainly useful and necessary in order to try to understand others’ convictions, but these readings should inspire meditation and questions, not a simplistic accusation. We must also give ourselves the right to dare to ask all the questions that occur to us. The answers may or may not be satisfying, they may or may not suit us, but they will have been clearly stated. Trust can be born only from this frankness and clarity: in the meantime, without the latter, courtesy is but artificial or even a masquerade. At a deeper level, these are all questions that help people to go further in understanding their own traditions. Looking for a way to give a deep explanation means making the effort to understand better. The relevance of the question to my partner in dialogue is a gift, an intellectual and spiritual tonic, because I learn to express better what I believe and so to understand more deeply the meaning of what I am. Finally, dialogue involves clarity and courage: our scriptural sources have sometimes been used, or have legitimized (and still legitimize) discourses, behavior, and actions toward others about which we need to make clear statements. This is not always easy, but it is nevertheless vital, and all the religious traditions should be involved in this selfcriticism. Some see it as a kind of disloyalty toward their own community; it should instead be a matter of self-respect and dignity before God and each person’s conscience.

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