Interreligious dialogue

Interreligious dialogue

Etymologically, the word dialogue (Gr., dialogos) means simply "conversation," although in Western intellectual history its dominant meaning has been "a piece of written work cast in the form of a conversation." In the history of religions, "conversations" about the meaning of beliefs, rituals, and ethics have no doubt been taking place, though informally and unrecorded, from the very beginning, or at least from the first encounter of divergent belief systems. However, the phrase dialogue of religions has become common in various religious traditions only since the second half of the twentieth century.

Written dialogues on religion and on philosophical subjects have a long history. The most celebrated Western examples are no doubt the dialogues of Plato, and particularly those in which the teaching methods of Socrates are presented on a question-and-answer basis. Within many religious traditions, dialogues between teachers and their pupils were recorded as a means of communicating and deepening insights. But in virtually all such cases the neophyte occupied a position of submission to the teacher, whose authority derived from what he had learned orally from his mentor and proved in practice. This type of dialogue is especially marked in the Indian traditions, Hindu and Buddhist alike. A relationship of faith and trust is set up between master and disciple, whereupon the disciple receives instruction, often in response to respectful questioning. Many of the Upaniṣads are cast in dialogue form, as is the Bhagavadgītā and a portion of the Buddhist Pali canon. The Judeo-Christian tradition likewise contains much instruction in dialogue form: the Law (Torah) is interpreted orally by rabbis to the circle of their disciples, whereas the teachings of Jesus are often placed in the context of conversations and instruction sessions within the company of followers. It is hardly possible in any of these instances to speak of a dialogue between equals, since the disciple or pupil comes seeking the insights that only that particular teacher can provide. In the Socratic dialogue the pupil is made to play a more active role, certainly, but the presence of the master is what guarantees that insights will emerge.

Artificial or imaginative dialogues on religious and metaphysical subjects also occur frequently in Western literature, following the pattern established in classical antiquity. An early medieval example of the genre was the Icelander Snorri Sturluson's Prose Edda (early thirteenth century), in which Gangleri asks three informants about the contents of Norse mythology. Later examples are very numerous, and include works as diverse as David Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779), R. A. Vaughan's Hours with the Mystics (1856), and Ninian Smart's A Dialogue of Religions (1960). This type of dialogue relates closely to the conventions of the theater and the novel, which may serve a similar purpose and of which this type of dialogue is a didactic offshoot. Less artificial were attempts to record the conversations and informal statements of literati and religious leaders—Martin Luther's Tischreden (Table Talk, 1566), Boswell's Life of Johnson (1791), Dialogues of Alfred North Whitehead (1954), and, from India, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna (1897).

Imaginative dialogue has also served the cause of interreligious controversy—for example, by convincing an imaginary opponent of the error of his ways. An early missionary example was K. M. Banerjea's Dialogues on Hindu Philosophy (1861), which set Indian traditions against one another in the interests of Christianity. This apologetic method was, however, short-lived.

Common to the older forms of didactic or controversial dialogue was the assumption that religious truth is to be arrived at rationally, by reasonable discourse and the weighing of evidence and proofs. Doubtless there were cases in which this actually happened. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, contacts between religious traditions increased rapidly, and along with them actual (as opposed to imaginary) conversational encounters between believers. How often these followed an ideally rational course must remain a moot point: one suspects they seldom did so. But since during this same period the Western countries were politically and economically dominant, and the Christian missionary enterprise was experiencing its greatest successes, conversations usually involved Christians, and were seldom between equal partners. Where other traditions were concerned, for instance in confrontations between Hindus and Muslims in India, there could be a level of mutual suspicion that prevented constructive conversations from taking place at all. The West was, however, becoming steadily better informed on matters concerning other religious traditions, while the rapid onset of theological liberalism was modifying the terms in which Western religion was expressed. Before World War I, the dominant concepts were "sympathy" and "fulfillment," and although innumerable conversations took place, no one applied to them the word dialogue.

Apologetics and controversy aside, in the late nineteenth century began a serious attempt to bring the religious leaders of the world together in a spirit of reconciliation, concentrating on what united them rather than what kept them apart. The pioneer assembly was the World's Parliament of Religions, held in Chicago in 1893; its original impulse came from Swedenborgians, yet it gathered under the banner of a common theism. The parliament at least attracted delegates from every major tradition, and although it dismayed the orthodox of many creeds (especially within evangelical Christianity), it established many important contacts. It also marked the beginning of the modern Hindu "mission" to the West in the person of Swami Vivekananda, who taught, following Ramakrishna, the equal value of all religions as pathways to the Real. This view was strongly supported in theory by organizations like the Theosophical Society (founded in 1875) and Bāhā'i. A Chicago "continuation committee" was formed, though no further full-scale parliaments were ever held. The Chicago spirit survived, however, in an International Council of Unitarian and Other Liberal Religious Thinkers and Workers, which worked between 1901 and 1913. Its aims were to introduce believers to one another, to emphasize the "universal elements" in all religions, and to work for the "moral uplift of the world." World War I brought these efforts to a temporary halt, but after the war, when internationalism was held to be one safeguard against further conflict, various interfaith movements emerged, culminating in the World Fellowship of Faiths (1929).

Eight years earlier, Rudolf Otto had instituted his Religiöser Menschheitsbund (Interreligious League) with the same end in view—the lessening of international tensions through the banding together of believers. These moral objectives were accepted on the liberal wing of Christianity, coming to expression at the Jerusalem conference of the International Missionary Council in 1928, and classically in the liberal manifesto edited by W. E. Hocking, Re-Thinking Missions (1932). In general, however, Christians were uneasy about interfaith cooperation. Hindus adjusted to it more easily, and in the person of Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan gained an international spokesman of great force and clarity. Radhakrishnan held that the comparative study of religion made exclusive claims on the part of any individual tradition impossible, and that behind all empirical forms of religion there is "the same intention, the same striving, the same faith" (Radhakrishnan, East and West in Religion, London, 1933, p. 19).

Between the wars, world congresses and fellowships of faiths continued to meet regularly, even under the lengthening shadow of various forms of totalitarianism. Mention might also be made of the Oxford Group Movement (subsequently retitled Moral Re-Armament), which was basically Christian but which was more concerned with moral than with theological issues: it enjoyed its heyday in the late 1930s, and attracted many non-Christians. On another level, the philosophia perennis proclaimed by Coomaraswamy, Schuon, and Guénon gained followers from various traditions, Eastern as well as Western. This, however, was less a meeting place of religious traditions than a means by which they might be transcended. In the area of scholarship, although the study of religion on a multicultural basis undoubtedly did increase mutual respect among the traditions and further dialogue between them, few individual scholars were prepared to pronounce on the issue. One exception was Friedrich Heiler of Marburg, who stated at an international conference in Tokyo in 1958 that "a new era will dawn upon mankind when the religions will rise to true tolerance and co-operation on behalf of mankind. To assist in preparing the way for this era is one of the finest hopes of the scientific study of religion" (quoted in Sharpe, 1975, p. 272). Other scholars, however, regarded this ideal as less than "scientific."

Parliaments, congresses, and conferences continued to bring together religious leaders in a spirit of irenic idealism, on the pattern of the League of Nations. Yet there was an increasing sense of the threat to religion being posed by the European totalitarian regimes, as well as by materialism, and frequent calls were made for the world's religious leaders to band their people together to meet these pressures. What the leaders could not guarantee to do, however, was change the religious configurations of the world. Local situations were still, during the interwar years, dominated by local concerns. Within the Christian churches, there were several notable moves in the direction of increasing visible unity—among Methodists in Britain, Presbyterians in Scotland, Protestant churches in Canada and South India—but relatively little could be done on the interfaith level.

The notion of dialogue in its modern sense entered the world of religion during the confused and confusing years after World War I, and was closely connected with the philosophy of existentialism. Its first and most widely read manifesto was Martin Buber's I and Thou (1923), which urged that human beings should cease to look upon one another merely as objects ("I-It") and approach one another directly and with mutual acceptance as fellow humans ("I-Thou"). Buber was Jewish and therefore well acquainted with racial, religious, and economic oppression. But such forms of oppression might emerge whenever and wherever negative value judgments were applied by a dominant group to their (supposed) inferiors. The only cure was the recognition of common humanity, and the personal discourse—or dialogue—of individuals, whatever their beliefs, on that level.

Although Buber and the other existentialists were widely read, and although, as we have seen, many interfaith initiatives were begun between the wars, the application of the term dialogue to the relation between religious traditions did not become common until the years after World War II. By that time the political and religious patterns of the world had begun to change more and more rapidly. Western political imperialism was being rapidly dismantled; former colonies were becoming independent almost daily, with a consequent questioning of the values of the colonial period, religious values not excepted; but at the same time Christianity was an important factor in the lives of the new nations, and needed to find a new role, independent of the former governing powers. The newly independent nations were seldom other than partly Christian. India became officially "secular," while having a massive Hindu majority, and Pakistan was created as a Muslim state, for Hindu-Muslim dialogue on the subcontinent had been a marked failure. Elsewhere in the world, whether official ideology was Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish (in the sole case of Israel), or "secular," Christianity was in almost all cases thrust on to the defensive. In the Western countries themselves the Christian pattern underwent a progressive polarization between conservative and liberal views, with liberals in particular suffering greatly from postcolonial guilt on the one hand and an uncertainty as to ultimate religious values on the other.

It was in this atmosphere that the word dialogue began to emerge as the only workable term with which to describe the proper attitude of one group of believers over against another. It should be remembered, however, that during the time of its greatest popularity, between the mid-1960s and the mid-1970s, the word was used almost exclusively by the liberal wing of Christianity (both Catholic and Protestant) in the West, and by similarly liberal Christians in the developing nations. Conservatives found the term unacceptable, since it implicitly placed religious traditions on a par with one another, or at least was less than explicit when it came to affirming the claims of Christianity. In the non-Western world, too, there were those who suspected that the new emphasis on dialogue was no more than a subtler and more insidious form of missionary apologetics.

An important symbolical breakthrough was achieved by the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965) of the Roman Catholic church, which spoke in several documents about dialogue, the church for instance urging "her sons … prudently and lovingly, through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions," to "acknowledge, preserve, and promote the spiritual and moral goods found among these men, as well as the values in their society and culture" (Nostra aetate 2). Similarly, the disciples of Christ "can learn by sincere and patient dialogue what treasures a bountiful God has distributed among the nations of the earth" (Ad gentes 2.11). Statements of this kind had the effect of liberating Catholics from previous restrictions on fellowship with non-Catholics, and of releasing a flood of "dialogue literature," in the production of which Protestants were soon to share.

But not all this literature saw the nature and purpose of dialogue in the same light. In addition, much of it suffered in that it was not actually emerging from discussions between believers belonging to different traditions, but remained on the level of theorizing about dialogue. Various types of activity seemed to be capable of being contained beneath the "dialogue" canopy.

  1. Discursive dialogue (previously "debate" or "discussion") involves meeting, listening, and discussion on the level of mutual competent intellectual inquiry. As such it was neither very new nor very remarkable, though it had always been fairly uncommon. As an intellectual activity, it could only ever be profitable among equally equipped partners, since it presupposes the willingness of both to listen, as well as speak.
  2. Human ("Buberian") dialogue rests on the existential foundations previously described, and assumes that it is possible for human beings to meet purely and simply as human beings, irrespective of the beliefs that separate them. The great drawback to this approach is its individualism. Although suitable enough among intellectuals in the semisecular West, it leaves out of consideration the extent to which the individual is shaped by the community of which he or she, depending on its support and adhering to its values, is part. To bypass the community is often simply impossible, and although this approach rests on high ideals, it may prove to be little more than a theoretical stance.
  3. Secular dialogue stresses that where there are tasks to be performed in the world, believers in different creeds may share in a program of joint action, without regard to their respective convictions. In the theological climate of the 1960s and 1970s, dialogue very frequently appeared to be pointed in this direction. It simply bypassed the belief question in the interests of practicalities. "Desacralization turns the eyes of men to the world, to time and history, and the realities of history are often more manageable for purposes of dialogue than the supramundane things of an ethereal world" (Jai Singh, 1967, pp. 43–44).
  4. Spiritual dialogue has been advocated chiefly by those who have been trained in the contemplative and monastic traditions, and who have learned to set high value upon Eastern (or other) spirituality, while not wishing to lessen their hold upon their own. Its locus is not debate and discussion, but prayer and meditation, and in recent years it has given rise to a considerable number of ashrams and meditation centers in East and West alike. In theoretical terms, it rests on a monistic theology similar in many ways to Vedānta; in practical terms, it often concedes to the East a level of attainment in matters of spirituality superior to that of the West, and is prepared to use non-Christian scriptures, liturgies, and techniques alongside those that are specifically Christian. Often it will stress the importance of theologia negativa, negate the primacy of logic and conceptual knowledge, and rely on experience, intuition, and contemplation. In this respect it was a typical product of the 1960s.

Since about the mid-1970s, the term dialogue has been somewhat less used than during the previous decade, partly on account of changing fashions, partly in response to socioeconomic pressures. There is little real evidence that the stated goals of dialogue (at least as formulated by Christians) were ever reached, and in any case, each new generation has had to take up the task of meeting other believers afresh. But at least the "dialogue period" helped to banish some of the impatience and the inaccuracies of the past, although doubtless creating fresh problems of its own. While it taught many Christians the importance of sympathy and seriousness in interreligious discourse, it failed to engage the attention of most other traditions on anything but a superficial level. As such, what has often been called a "dialogue of religions" and set forth as a practical activity, has remained on the level of theory and ideals. Actual encounters of believers there will always be. They will undoubtedly remain haphazard, unpredictable, sometimes violent, and always determined by local conditions.


Jai Singh, Herbert, ed. Inter-religious Dialogue. Bangalore, 1967.

Klostermaier, Klaus Konrad. Hindu and Christian in Vrindaban. Translated by Antonia Fonseca. London, 1969.

Klostermaier, Klaus Konrad. "Hindu-Christian Dialogue: Its Religious and Cultural Implications." Studies in Religion 1 (1971): 83–97.

Sharpe, Eric J. "The Goals of Inter-religious Dialogue." In Truth and Dialogue in World Religions: Conflicting Truth-Claims, edited by John Hick, pp. 77–95. Philadelphia, 1974.

Sharpe, Eric J. Comparative Religion: A History. London, 1975.

Sharpe, Eric J. Faith Meets Faith: Some Christian Attitudes to Hinduism in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. London, 1977.

Eric J. Sharpe (1987)

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