February 2019 Feature
In recent years, I have had the opportunity to engage in several inter-faith activities, often as a representative of the National Council of Churches of Singapore (NCCS). A few well-meaning Christians have privately expressed to me the discomfort they feel: Was I compromising my Christian faith by participating in these activities? This concern stems from a particular perception of inter-religious dialogue, one based on a model promoted, perhaps most prominently, by the philosopher of religion John Hick. Hick teaches that the major world religions all point to the same reality, which the various religions have described using different terms (e.g. “God”, “heaven”, “nirvana”). In the end, “all roads lead to Rome”, and we end up at the same destination, whichever religious path we follow.
Inter-religious dialogue, for Hick, is therefore an exercise which seeks to uncover common features in our various faith traditions, which will help us see more clearly that we are ultimately on the same journey. It is also needful, during such dialogue, to downplay the distinctive teachings of each religion, as these tend to drive a wedge between the various faiths and blind us to the fact that, at the core, we are all identical.
Space does not allow us to engage in a comprehensive critique of Hick’s position. But one thing we can say is that it demonstrates very clearly the arrogance of the modern age. What Hick is effectively telling the followers of the major world religions (many of whom have studied and practised their faith the whole of their lives) is that he understands their faith better than they do. Religious practitioners are severely limited by their religious blinkers, but Hick (the modern philosopher) is somehow able to rise above all of them and see things from a truly transcendent perspective. He is therefore able to reveal the true nature of their religion to them. Hick’s approach exemplifies the myth of modernity: That we can arrive at an absolute and objective truth by utilising supposedly neutral means like human reason or experience.
In many parts of the world, the modern age has given way to the postmodern. While postmodernity has its harmful excesses, it has helpfully exposed the myth of modernity by showing that all human beings (even the modern philosopher) have our own blinkers. The supposedly neutral status of human reason and experience has been undermined, as we realise that we reason and interpret our experiences in ways significantly influenced by our particular cultural presuppositions.
These developments have major implications on how we view inter-religious dialogue. When followers of different religions speak to one another, there is, in a postmodern environment, no longer the pressure to discover that, at the root, we all believe in the same reality. Instead, postmodernity gives space for each religion to assert its uniqueness. We acknowledge that we hold views which cannot, at the end of the day, be reconciled with those of the other faiths.
But this frank acknowledgement of our differences does not spell the end of dialogue. On the contrary, it sets the stage for genuine dialogue to take place. As theologian William Placher observes (in Unapologetic Theology, p. 146): “Once we recognise that we are not all trying to say the same thing, then we can recognise that some of the things that other people are saying seem to be genuine insights which we can appropriate for ourselves…”
Being set free from the strictures of modernity also allows inter-religious dialogue to take on a more pragmatic tenor. We talk to one another to see if there are areas of overlapping concern where we can work together. This kind of cooperation can take place on the level of individual issues, without being encumbered by unrealistic attempts to achieve uniformity in the way we perceive and respond to everything.
In my limited involvement in inter-faith activities here in Singapore, I find this second view of inter-religious dialogue to be the one undergirding our activities. I take as an example the series of “Building Bridges” seminars held in the years 2012-2013, which focussed on the topic of “Religious Tradition and Authority in a Post-modern World”. Representatives from the NCCS and the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS) took turns to share perspectives from their own faith on the topic.
There was no attempt by either side to water-down our beliefs or downplay the significant differences which exist between both faiths. We shared how things appear to us as Christians or Muslims, listened respectfully to the perspectives offered by the other side, and gained valuable insights which helped illumine our own situations. We also identified common areas of concern, like the difficulty faced by both faith traditions in combating the pervasive notion of individualism and the consequent disregard of religious authority.
More than that, these seminars represent a precious opportunity for followers of different religions to meet face to face. Through the process, unhelpful stereotypes were dispelled, trust was built up and friendships were formed. As religious tension and conflict fester in our increasingly polarised world, these achievements should not be underrated.
Dr Leow Theng Huat teaches theology and Church history at Trinity Theological College. He is a local preacher in the Methodist Church in Singapore, and a member of Wesley Methodist Church.