Should Christians engage in inter-faith dialogue?
FOR some Christians, inter-faith dialogue is to be discouraged and even scrupulously avoided because it smacks of compromise and syncretism.
In a recent survey entitled, “Negotiating Christianity with Other Religions: The Views of Christian Clergymen in Singapore”, Dr Matthew Matthews, a fellow of the National University of Singapore, reported this response from a pastor he interviewed: “Dialogue? What use do I have to dialogue with representatives of Satan?”
Thankfully, such responses are in the minority. Of the 167 Protestant pastors who participated in the survey, 72.5 per cent generally agree with the statement, “Inter-religious dialogue between religious leaders can be fruitful”. To the statement, “I would have dialogue with leaders of other faiths if I had the opportunity”, more than 75 per rent responded affirmatively. And over half of the clergy who responded to the survey have no difficulties with cooperating with a non-Christian religious leader in a charity drive for the community.
Dialogue or interaction with people from other faith communities must be seen as an aspect of social intercourse in a multi-religious society like Singapore. Therefore, dialogue must be understood as part of our social engagement with other members of our society, which includes fellow believers, adherents of non-Christian religions and people without religious commitments. Seen from this perspective dialogue with people from other faith communities is already part of the daily experience of Christians as they interact with their Muslim neighbours and their Buddhist colleagues. Understood in this way, dialogue is always inextricably bound to the larger matrix of social interactions between persons.
Scholars have described such interactions as the dialogue of life where people of different religions and those without a religion very naturally and openly share their lives with each other, their joys and sorrows, their problems and preoccupations. Christians should have no problems participating in the dialogue of life in the natural settings of their particular social environments.
What is the purpose of inter-faith dialogue? The fundamental goal of inter-faith dialogue, as I see it, is for people of different faiths to understand one another. In dialogue, as in all forms of human social exchange, we seek to discover one another by appreciating the many concerns that we share as well as the things that make us different. It is only by appreciating our differences – not by brushing them aside and ignoring them – that we truly get to know one another. Furthermore, it is also in acknowledging and recognising our differences – not just our common concerns – that we truly learn to respect one another.
But in the process of understanding one another, we will also be led to recognise and cherish our common aspirations and commitments, and this will surely go a long way towards establishing lasting friendships between members of different faith communities. This may in turn lead to a deeper form of social engagement that scholars call the dialogue of action where members of different faith communities collaborate to address a social or societal concern or to work towards the common good.
This brings me to the fear expressed by some Christians that inter-faith dialogue and collaboration may lead Christians to compromise their faith. To be sure, some forms of inter-faith dialogue, especially those that are built on the premise of a false and superficial irenics (an attempt to find agreement of and mutual assent to issues), may result in serious compromises. But I believe that inter-faith dialogue and even collaboration can be conducted with full theological integrity.
Some years ago, I had the privilege of working together with the members of the Association of Muslim Professionals to organise a seminar on the theme, “Secular State, Moral Society” in the wake of the debates on homosexuality and the proposed Integrated Resorts. Such collaborations can be conducted with absolute integrity as the two faith communities spoke to common societal issues from their own traditions. There was no attempt by either party to resort to superficial irenics or to dilute their own theological doctrines in order to artificially establish “common ground” between them. The fear that all inter-faith dialogue would result in compromise is unfounded.
Equally unfounded is the claim that only when Christians surrender their exclusivist view regarding salvation in Jesus Christ is true dialogue possible. This assertion is often made – rather dogmatically – by liberal writers who maintain that dialogue is possible only within the framework of a pluralist philosophy of religions. Also baseless is their claim that in order for Christians to relate in an authentic way to people of other faiths they should give up their absolute truth-claims like “Jesus Christ is the only Saviour of humankind.”
In the first place, we should bear in mind that such truth-claims are not peculiar to the Christian religion. The Muslim would say that the Holy Qu’ran is the revelation of Allah and his predetermined purposes, while the Buddhist would say that the Buddha in one form or another is central to human existence. Furthermore, for dialogue to be truly authentic, the dialogue partners must engage each other with honesty and transparency. And this surely implies presenting the truth-claims that have been so integral to their own religious traditions.
The attempt by liberal scholars to relativise such truth-claims is actually a mark of profound disrespect to the religions. The relationship between people from different faith communities in Asia is too delicate and too important for it to be dictated by the Western liberal agenda.
Space does not allow the discussion of the relationship between dialogue and witness. Let me end by reiterating the fact that dialogue or interaction with people of other religions is part of our social responsibility as Christians. We must always conduct such exchanges with integrity and respect. Respect for the other requires that we be honest, transparent and truthful.
Like all relationships of nobility and substance, the Christian’s relationship with members of other faith communities must be characterised by a responsible love, shaped by God’s truth.
‘Unfounded is the claim that only when Christians surrender their exclusivist view regarding salvation in Jesus Christ is true dialogue possible. This assertion is often made – rather dogmatically – by liberal writers who maintain that dialogue is possible only within the framework of a pluralist philosophy of religions. Also baseless is their claim that in order for Christians to relate in an authentic way to people of other faiths they should give up their absolute truth-claims like “Jesus Christ is the only Saviour of humankind.” ’
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.