Interfaith dialogue has become the flavour of the year. Two weeks ago the former prime minister of Britain, Tony Blair, launched a Faith Foundation aimed at increasing dialogue between the major religions. Then last week, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia hosted a conference in Mecca and won the approval of 500 Islamic clerics and scholars to engage in dialogue with “People of the Book” – Jews, Christians and Muslims.
Many interfaith initiatives are already active, but this new wave of religious discussion gained momentum with a letter entitled “A Common Word”, sent in October by 138 Islamic scholars to Christian leaders. Pope Benedict XVI responded positively by calling a delegation of the letter writers to Rome to discuss plans for an historic Catholic-Muslim forum; other Christian leaders have been considering how best to reply.
The “Common Word” approach aims at a dialogue of two partners; the King Abdullah initiative will invite representatives from a trio of religions; and Mr Blair’s model seeks to bring together six faiths (Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Sikhism). The challenge in this interfaith frenzy will be to avoid confusion, to co-ordinate conversations, to limit offence when some parties are excluded and to safeguard against dialogue fatigue.
To write off the interfaith fervour as a fad is to underestimate the enormous hurdles that exist in getting people to the discussion tables. The much publicised baptism by Pope Benedict of a former Muslim, Magdi Allam, was seen as an inflammatory act that outraged many Muslims and had the potential to derail the dialogue process. Many ordinary devotees of their faith do not rate interfaith dialogue as a high priority and are anxious that discussion will lead to a blurring and a boiling down of their beliefs in the effort to achieve religious unity. Some at last week’s Mecca conference questioned whether discussions between the different branches of Islam should take precedence over dialogue with members of other faiths.
The motivation for these endeavours is serious and far-reaching. In an interview with Time magazine last month, Mr Blair said he wanted to devote the rest of his life to promoting understanding between the world’s religions. Muslim leaders in their “Common Word” said that, as Muslims and Christians make up well over half the world’s population, the future of peace depends on them. King Abdullah expressed the hope that his talks will end inter-religious tension and “safeguard humanity from folly”.
A statement from the Mecca gathering last week proposed the holding of “conferences, forums and discussion groups” but few details have emerged from any of the interfaith initiatives as to how conversation will take place. There are, however, some key principles that can make or break a dialogue.
Dialogue is firstly about bringing people together. Plotting a long but leisurely process is more likely to grow friendships and trust than a short, concentrated summit. When people come together, face to face, it involves the meeting of people who share a common humanity and a common yearning to encounter the divine. The monarch of the Saudi kingdom stressed the importance of a personal meeting in making a visit to the Pope last year.
The letter from Muslim leaders makes reference to the common scriptures and personalities such as Abraham and Sarah, who are heroes of the faith to believers of Judaism, Islam and Christianity. To begin dialogue by surveying the common ground and discovering shared convictions and commitments makes sense.
Rather than focusing on issues of doctrine, the invitation to people to tell their story of faith and how they experience their everyday religion will be to discover what is real and valuable for them. Significant religious dialogue must move from the personal to the public level during which people will talk about how their faith informs and connects with the burning issues of society – the environment, the economy, health and the conflicts between people.
Mr Blair’s initiative importantly aims to go beyond talk fests to getting people working on projects that tackle poverty and disease. He said: “If you [have] got churches and mosques and those of the Jewish faith working together to provide bed nets that are necessary to eliminate malaria, what a fantastic thing that would be.”
Talks between leading clerics and politicians may result in respect, tolerance and freedom of worship. Hopefully, such discussion will descend to the grassroots, where people of different faiths will then discover that they share a common care for the earth, a compassion for the poor and a commitment to justice and peace.
Dr Geoff Pound is a freelance writer, teacher and consultant.