No religion can be isolated in a multi-religious world today, it needs to be cooperative and open to the other in order to build a new world of peace, love and justice. Inter-faith dialogue becomes a very important step in building the confidence among various religious groups. Read it all to get more insights.
DIALOGUE AS MISSION IN A MULTI-RELIGIOUS CONTEXT OF MYANMAR
By Pastor Vahmo
We are living in a rapidly changing multi-religious world today in which mono-religion is not found if the community is not traditional religion. This does not surprise us because today’s multi-religious world is part of modernization, rather globalization that provides the Churches a great opportunity and possibility for the quick expansion of Missio Dei. In different sense, multi-religiosity is rapidly increasing everywhere. Myanmar which is a modern community of multi-religions, viz. Buddhism as religious majority, Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism as religious minority, has no longer been in existence as a home of mono-religion. The challenge of multi-religious world to the Churches in Myanmar is apparently occurred, and inter-religious dialogue therefore urgently needs to be taken place. In such context, there is a crucial question: How does dialogue means for the Churches in Myanmar?
Dialogue, more appropriately inter-faith dialogue as part of mission, varies different meanings according to different contexts. Socio-politically speaking, “Dialogue,” Suu Kyi said, “is not a debate. There will be disagreements and arguments. Dialogue does not involve winners and losers. It is not a question of losing face. It involves finding the best solutions for the country.” But in the context of multi-religions, for Moltmann, “there are two different forms of inter-faith dialogue: direct dialogue about the different religious ideas of the participants and indirect dialogue about ethical, social and ecological topics of common concern.” In the light of these two views, dialogue seeks possible solutions of religious, social and political issues daily arising among modern multi-religious societies. It does not aim to remove differences but to build bridges of confidence, trust, understanding and respect. It is also a process of mutual empowerment and peace-building. Religious contribution to building a culture of societal peace is more important. Hans Kung is right, making a bright slogan of what we may call multi-religious world, which says, “Without peace between the religions, no peace in the world.” By and large, Christian mission and dialogue go together; rather they can not be separated each other if one desires to achieve his/her mission in the modern world multi-religious milieu.
This paper aims at finding the possibility of building a bridge between Christian mission and dialogue in the wounded world of multi-religiosity today. To achieve the prime aim, despite its strictly limited scope of missio-dialogical study, the attempt is made in three parts with three different perspectives, viz. past, present and future. Finally, personal reflection on the importance of inter-faith dialogue as a means for mission is contributed in this paper.
1. Historical Perspective
The concept of multi-religious or inter-faith dialogue, exceedingly created in the early 20 century, has a rich history particularly in the modern ecumenical movement. The Christian message to the people of other faiths was a central issue in the 1910 Edinburgh World Mission Conference while Catholic Church made a wider theology from the boarder of “no-salvation-outside-the-Church” to “salvation-for-all” at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). In the early Christian centuries, the prominent thinkers such as Origen, Cyprian, and Augustine prepared the Traditional Catholic positions called ‘Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus’ (Outside the Church there is no salvation) at Lateran Council IV in 1215. According to Kung, in the seventeenth century Rome condemned the principle cited by French Jansenists, ‘Extra Ecclesiam nulla gratia’ (Outside of the Church there is no grace). However, the Second Vatican Council, invoking God’s salvific will and plan for salvation, finally declared (Article 16):
“Those individuals, who for no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ and his Church, yet still search for God with an upright heart and try to fulfill his will, as recognized in the commands of conscience, in deeds prompted by the working of his grace, can attain eternal salvation.”
Undoubtedly, inter-religious dialogue was thus discussed at the Vatican Council II, which radically changed the Catholic’s attitude towards other people of faiths mainly with the convictions of its theologians just like Jean Daniélou and Karl Rahner. Under the effective leadership of Pope Paul VI, Secretariat for Non-Christians was established with a purpose of sharing with people of any religious tradition. A document Nostra Aetate was a declaration on the Catholic Church’s attitude towards other faiths.
The from-exclusiveness-to-inclusiveness type of theology was extensively worked and widely discussed by John Hick through pluralistic approach as a response to Anonymous Christians of Karl Rahner. Salvation is in Christ alone, and non-Christians may nevertheless receive this salvation by being related to Christ either implicitly in this life or explicitly beyond it. This salvific task has been in history, Hick assumes, for the divine Logos, or cosmic Christ, or Holy Spirit, as at work within these other religious histories. Gavin D’Costa firmly stands by the position of Christo-centric Trinitarian requirement among the religions. He said:
“I believe that the Trinitarian doctrine of God facilitates an authentically Christian response to the world religions because it takes the particularities of history entirely seriously. This is so because the doctrine seeks to affirm that God has disclosed himself in the contingencies and particularity of the person Jesus. But the Trinity also affirms, by means of the two other persons, that God is constantly revealing himself through history by means of the Holy Spirit.”
Liberation theology affirms God’s salvific act in history that the Israelite people liberated from the slavery bondage in Egypt to the promised land of Canaan. The theology of history provides a large heritage of God’s inclusive task to all religions, and encourages the construction of theological bridge between mission and dialogue. However, looking back to the history of the early church, according to Wesley Ariarajah, the history of Christianity is also the history of Christian relationship with other faith traditions. Religious tension between Christians and non-Christians has been evident in terms of different faith traditions because of exclusivist ideology of Christian faith as Jewish religion. As a result, the quarrel between Jews and Gentiles first came into a challenge to Jesus in his earthly mission, and then Paul with a theological question of dialogue.
It is important to revisit the modern ecumenical movement within the WCC family and the Catholic Church shortly in order to understand how interfaith dialogue became into existence. The 1910 Edinburgh conference was believed to have been the starting point of dialogical-eye openness with a view that Christian encounter with other religious traditions has experienced and clearly saw dialogue essential as Christian mission. In those days, J.N. Farquhar’s The Crown of Hinduism, which argued that Christ fulfilled the longings and aspirations of Hinduism, and The Christian Message in a Non-Christian World of Hendrik Kraemer enriched the participants theological insights. For Kraemer, the only true way to know the revealed will of God is by responding to the divine intervention in history in Christ. A 1967 WCC-Kandy conference produced big interest in interfaith dialogue. And then WCC Interfaith Dialogue programme was born. The Chiang Mai consultation formulated ‘Guidelines on Dialogue with the People of Living Faiths and Ideologies’ which was adopted by its central committee in 1979. The document promoted interfaith dialogue and encouraged closer collaboration between Christians and others. After Vatican II, the Catholic collaboration with WCC became significant in interfaith dialogue. Nowadays many organizations and networks on interfaith dialogue have grown up around the world since religious pluralism became evident in the more places in the past thirty years.
In the light of the above mentioned from historical perspective, we are definitely convinced that theology of religions has emerged as interrelationship between mission and dialogue within multi-religious complexity or the global situation of religious pluralism. Therefore, dialogue has been seen as most appropriate way to achieve the Christian mission effectively, because Jesus’ model of mission was dialogical. In another word, Jesus’ dialogical and situational ministry in his earthly life was Missio Dei (God’s mission) to love and to save all humankind and even all creations.
2. The Present Christian Mission and Dialogue
The age of modernization which seriously challenges the Churches to work God’s mission together with the people of other living faiths calls for Christians to reinterpret the scriptures with contextual eyes due to “the change of plurality.” Because, today Christians in almost all parts of the world live in religiously plural societies. The rapidly changing context of the past Christian mission became quite different from that of today’s mission. Thus mission is understood to be dialogical as effective way that every religion needs to do dialogue with the other. This challenges Christians to reinterpret their faith in their context, and to work on genuine dialogue with the people of other faiths in deeds and works.
In this respect, I shall argue the questions such as: What are theologies that need to be re-interpreted for mission in the context of religious pluralism? Why does dialogue become so important today? What advantages does dialogue bring about? I deal with theology of religions which has been remarkably born to the modern theologians; namely among many Karl Barth, John Hick, Paul Knitter, Hans Kung, Jurgen Moltmann and Wesley Ariarajah.
First, dialogue is essential for Christian mission. Mission and dialogue in interreligious sense are thus inseparable. However, dialogue is not always easy to take place. Paul Knitter is pluralistic, and has his own four dialogical models: replacement, fulfillment, mutuality and acceptance. He says, “So dialogue will not always be comfortable; there will be disagreements, opposition… From the Replacement model, all Christian can and should learn that if our dialogue with other believers is always smooth and sweet, something may be wrong” Interreligious dialogue is, for Knitter, meant to be truly mutual dialogue. Through dialogue, Christians can come to understand Jesus in ways that never would have been possible without the dialogue. According to the Gospels, mission is understood as a liberative task that rather is an invitation to life. Moltmann whose position is inclusivism agues that, Christ is the divine yes to life. That yes leads to the healing of sick, to acceptance of marginalized, to the forgiveness of sins, and to the saving of impaired life from the powers of destruction. This is the way Gospels tell about Jesus’ mission. For Moltmann, Jesus did not bring new religion but new life. The mission to which God sends men and women means inviting all human beings, the religious and non-religious, to life, to the affirmation of life, to the protection of life, to shared life, and to eternal life. The Nazareth Manifesto in Luke 4:18-19 which reads the proclamation of the year of Lord’s favor includes all the people of the world, who are poor, imprisoned, blind and oppressed. This is today’s liberative understanding of mission all about.
Secondly, the missional dialogue needs understanding of different religious traditions, because every religion has what Ariarajah called “uniqueness of religious tradition.” Ariarajah is a pioneering figure in studying different religious traditions:
“The specificity of each tradition is self-evident because each of them has an inner cohesive vision of Reality that is peculiar to the place of its origin or to the prophetic figure whose intense experience marked its beginnings. This specificity is further entrenched when the expression of that religious vision is enveloped in the philosophic, cultural, linguistic and geo-political realities of the place of its origin.”
In the same position with Ariarajah, WCC affirms its conviction of religious and cultural identities, and its statement (No.16) reads:
“Other religious traditions have also lived through similar challenges in their development. There is no one expression of Judaism, Islam, Hinduism or Buddhism, etc. As these religions journeyed out of their lands of origin they too have been shaped by the encounters with the cultures they moved into, transforming and being transformed by them. Most of the major religious traditions today have had the experience of being cultural "hosts" to other religious traditions, and of being "hosted" by cultures shaped by religious traditions other than their own. This means that the identities of religious communities and of individuals within them are never static, but fluid and dynamic.”
According to Moltmann, who advocates the importance of culturo-religious dialogue between communities, no one will be able to understand others – no Christian, no Jew, no Muslim, and no Hindu or Buddhist - without the religious and cultural dialogue between religious communities. In this respect, Moltmann likely believes that our God communicates the truth, and all the religions participate more or less in this truth.
In these above respects, religious dialogue as effective way for mission most requires making sense of the reality of other religious traditions. Although the God’s work is beyond human understanding, Christians have a good feeling that the Spirit of God works in all religions as well, and thus no religion is uniquely true. Kung’s four basic positions on religions are clearly understood. They are: 1) no religion is true. Or all religions are equally untrue, 2) only one single religion is true, or all other religions are untrue, 3) every religion is true, or all religions are equally true, 4) only one religion is true, or all religions have a share in the truth of the religion. With the spirit of religious equality and mutuality, one can have effective dialogue because Jesus’ earthly mission was dialogical.
Thirdly, dialogue is salvific or liberative task. Knitter’s connection of liberation and dialogue expresses three oppressions called “trinity of oppressions”: socio-economic oppression, nuclear oppression and ecological oppression. He assumes that a soterio-centric, or liberation-centered, approach to interreligious understanding can provide the basis for responding to the critics of a pluralist theology of religions who argue that pluralists are creating a non-existent common center for dialogue or that they are imposing their own centers on others. Paul insisted that the suffering of this present time is resulted in human attitude against the nature created by God. The Christian of our time has little conception of the sufferings of the ancient saints, counted as outcasts, despised, persecuted, slain and so on. However, Paul counted these as nothing in view of the hope of eternal glory. This glory is inclusively granted to all religions.
Lastly, the revelation of God is for all religions. Historically, God revealed his glory in humans through Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, speaking from the multi-religious point of views, a genuine revelation of God, which is simply found under replacement model of Knitter, is in and through other religions. Paul himself simply made clear about revelation (cf. Rom.1:20; 2:15; Acts 14:16). Barth extensively worked on the course of revelation, and stood by two points: Revelation is God’s self-offering and self-manifestation, and revelation is the act by which in grace God reconciled man to himself by grace. Epistemologically, revelation of God is about truths in religion. But Christians believe that God reveals himself through his Creation, and that at least some truths can be learned by studying his divine work on his creations. However, religious dialogue can take place by mutually accepting each other in which revelation is differently distinguished from different religious symbols. Jesus Christ for instance is viewed as a Christian symbol, thus highly meaningful to Christians.
To conclude this chapter with, it is important to clarify the question of “dialogue or mission” of Moltmann, and why dialogue needs today. Moltmann’s critical question: dialogue yes – but to what end? Mission yes – but in what direction? – today challenges the churches to rethink about the nature and the purpose of God’s mission as the great tasks of the Church. No single religion can live by itself in multi-religious world. A peaceful coexistence is most priority for all, and only dialogue can meet such priority as God’s will. According to Moltmann, the only mission these churches (in Asia and India) know is non-violent mission, mission through conviction, simply through the process of co-existence. Mission is of course God’s commission. Christians must be very aware of theologies of religions- theologies that a living theologies for all religions. A genuine mission seeks the paradigm shift from exclusive theologies to inclusive theologies, and loves dialogical approach to the Gospel of peace and eternal life for all religions.
3. Future Perspective: Prospect for Tomorrow
I have already discussed how the Church became aware of mission and dialogue in the past, and what the Church is doing in the context of inter-religious plurality today. Nowadays we see everything has changed, and dialogue is seen a part of Church’s evangelizing mission. Interreligious dialogue thus encourages the Church to get involved in all sphere of holistic mission including all social and spiritual needs of all creations for the kingdom of God. In this sense, what prospects for tomorrow’s Church will be followed and are to be brought about? I shall discuss within a limited space below.
First, there is no a single religion which is considered as only a true religion. Further, in most areas where there is pluralistic religions, no individual’s monogamous religion can be found. Moltmann foresees the future of Asia and reminds the Churches in Asia to take a wider view of religion as:
In the tree Biblical religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the general opinion would seem to be that have a monogamous relationship to one’s religion – one person, one religion. But in Asia, the pluralism of the religions can be polygamously too… So there is no need to take such narrow view of religion as we are accustomed to do.
Inter-religious dialogue drives all religions to re-thinking the ways in which they have interpreted their faith traditions, and brings about change – the change in experience of faith through helping the other to deepen and grow in their faith. The purpose of dialogue is not to remove or run away from differences but to build confidence and trust across them. Since religion is sometimes seen as the cause of conflict whenever occurred in society, religions and inter-religious dialogue is always ready to serve as agents of reconciliation and peace-building. As Kung is very confident to say, “there can be no peace without peace among religions” the prime goal of dialogue as a prospect for the future is to build a culture of peace not just among the religions, but in the whole societies.
Secondly, Christians now became to say that dialogue in most fundamental sense is a service of the Kingdom, including social services in the communities. This service must be identical to other religions. Christian identity is, so to speak, quite different from that of the others. Archbishop Rowan William’s address to the 9th meeting of WCC, 2006 notes that Christian identity is liturgical in both senses, the work of a people, a community, showing God to each other and to the world around them, in daily action and in worship. Model of Orthodoxy “Liturgy after liturgy” is therefore Christian identity which the good deed-and-work for social service is intended to be responsible for the Church. The prayer of Jesus “Thy will be done on earth as in heaven” is applied to the kingdom of God here in this world.
Thirdly, dialogue is evangelism and cooperation in mission. Today the change of evangelical attitudes towards other churches just like Roman Catholic and Orthodox and other religions is highly acknowledged that the truth can be attained through cooperation and dialogue. The Manila Manifesto declares, “Cooperation means finding unity in diversity. It involves people of different temperaments, gifts, calling and cultures, national churches and mission agencies, all ages and both sexes working together.”
In the light of Manila Manifesto, today evangelicals realize that the impact of modernization made Christian evangelization possible to reach the goal of God’s mission which is “proclaiming Christ until he comes.” However, the modernity or the emerging world civilization represents both a great opportunity and a great threat. For most evangelicals worldwide, this challenge is no longer confronted. Moreover, both women and men are called to be evangelical to the world of the thirsty, both spiritual and physical. To response to it, the evangelicals whose doctrine has been once biblical, rather fundamental became aware of the importance of co-operational and dialogical evangelization as missioning task of the Church. The future mission will be a good meeting place of dialogue and cooperation of all churches and religions around the world for the sake of God and his people where peace and harmony is present.
Finally, I would like to conclude this part by theologizing dialogue contextual in multi-religious Myanmar which is home to Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and Hinduism. For Christians, dialogue is essential in doing mission. Myanmar theologians tried to contextualize mission in their work entitled Doing Theology under Bo Tree. The word of Knitter is so helpful for Myanmar Christians for their contextual dialogue. For Knitter, both in interreligious as well as inter-Christian relationships, dialogue and theology will form a life-giving, constantly rotating circle. Both theology and dialogue will call unto each other, enliven each other, challenge each other, and transform each other. Christians need to talk to each other in order to understand other religions; but they need to engage other religions in order to be able to talk with each other. The entrance place to the circle is practical, ethical, globally responsible dialogue in which Christians, among themselves and together with other religious believers, act together, work together, talk/pray together in order to save the earth and his peoples/creatures from the sufferings and crises they are now facing. Moreover, he suggests in his conclusion, that commit yourself first of all to acting together with your fellow Christians and your brothers and sisters in other religions in promoting the love, justice, and peace of God’s Reign – and your theologies will take care of themselves, and then the world will become better.
4. Personal Reflections on Mission and Dialogue for the Churches in Myanmar
Today mission is in contrast with the past is understood and interpreted differently according the wave of globalization or modernization. Mission has been done through syncretism and proselytism as effective way that is what Jesus reminded his disciples to be careful before he ascended. Unsurprisingly, the wisdom of new generation became advanced of religious pluralism and of the effective strategies of syncretism and proselytism as avoidable or harmful manner for non-Christians. The uses of the linguistic words, i.e. non-Christians or unbelievers, etc. are changed to the hear-sweet words, e.g. ‘the people of the living faiths’ or ‘the people of other faiths.’ These are dialogical, so to speak. In fact, dialogue is of course wider than what human thought.
Nowadays, ecumenically speaking, interreligious dialogue, for Myanmar Christians, is defined as walking together towards the truth, working together in social projects of common concern: peace, justice and development in the society. The spirit of togetherness promotes the truth, unity and peace. This dialogue is thus known as the service of the Kingdom as well as Church evangelizing mission.
In line with the above discussion, I want to look at the question of how historically the Church perceived interreligious dialogue as mission. To answer it, one can definitely say that the Church has been invited by God to encourage and foster dialogue not only within itself but also among interreligious traditions, and to promote all religious institutions and organizations to get involved through cooperation and collaboration in order to promote the common truth, and to live in peace, justice and love. To be more candid, I would like to borrow a word of Michael Fitzgerald. He said:
Before ever talking about interreligious dialogue, some attention can be given to dialogue as such. It is a manner of acting, an attitude, a spirit which guides one’s conduct. It implies concern, respect and hospitality toward the other. It leaves room for the other person’s identity, modes of expression, values. The conclusion drawn from this is that ‘dialogue is thus the norm and necessary means of every form of Christian mission.... Any sense of mission not permeated by such a dialogical spirit would go against the demands of true humanity and against the teachings of the Gospel’.
The modern theologians like Karl Barth, John Hink, Paul Knitter, Hans Kung, Jurgen Moltmann, Aloysius Pieris, Wesley Ariarajah and alike who developed theologies of religions in the pluralistic context made clear about inter-religious dialogue and mission in multi-religious world. The Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and World Council of Churches as well as other different religious bodies: Mustims, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews and so on. In accordance with the given texts, each has different theological approach to religious plurality and interreligious dialogue in Christian mission. Barth widely explores the issue of revelation of God; God’s revelation is for all. Hink’s pluralistic theology is concerned about salvation as central concern of each of the great world religions, but God-centeredness or the Ultimate, the Real in more general terms is conceived and experienced within one’s own tradition. Knitter who promoted four dialogical models is agreed with Barth by saying that a genuine revelation of God is in and trough other religions. However, he reminds the Churches that Christians need to talk to each other in order to understand other religions, and that act together, work together, talk together in order to save the earth and its creatures from the sufferings. In the same with Knitter, Moltmann also perceived the importance of inter-religious dialogue in the fact that no one will be able to understand anything without inter-religious dialogue.
Although multi-religious theologies of modern thinkers such as Aloysius Pieris (pluralistic), Amos Yong, Georges Khodr and Gavin D’Costa (the inclusivists) were not much consulted but very inspired me in this short paper, all became to agree upon the central basis of theology of religions or religious plurality that opened to all religions to move forwards the truth and the spirit of mutuality – mutual understanding, mutual trust, mutual cooperation, mutual respect and mutual recognition in terms of religious forms and norms, traditions and cultures.
Last but not least, Christian mission and dialogue in multi-religious context, for me, always go together since inter-religious dialogue becomes as a part of evangelizing mission and as a service of God’s Kingdom. Thus no one religion can be isolated and it thus needs to be cooperative and open to the other in order to build a new world of peace, love and justice.
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D’Costa, Gavin, “Christ, the Trinity and Religious Pluralism,” in Gavin D’Costa (ed.)
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Hebblethwaite (eds.), Christianity and Other Religions: Selected Readings. Oxford: Oneworld, 2001, 156-171.
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Note: The author is a Probationary Pastor of Mara Evangelical Church (MEC) in Myanmar. MEC is the Church founded by Mara pioneer missionary Rev. R.A. Lorrain in 1907. Pastor Vahmo is the first Mara pastor to have obtained Master of Theology (M.Th) in Ecumenical Studies from Bossey Ecumenical Institute, University of Geneva, Switzerland in 2011. He is a regular contributor to Maraland.net. His articles can be found at the 'Related' below.