Bahai News - Inter-religious encounter: Dialogue and the search for unity

Inter-religious encounter: Dialogue and the search for unity

If we observe today's world from the religious standpoint we realize that there are two opposing trends: on the one hand a striving for unity, expressed in the ecumenical movement and in many initiatives for inter-religious dialogue; and on the other a growing religious pluralism, due to the creation and diffusion of new denominations at the international level.

The contemporary spiritual quest is often expressed in an impulse to return to the sources, in the context of Christianity and of other religions which have ancient tradition. A result of this "return" is the creation of new groups, often full of vitality, which preserve the essential elements of the religious legacy which they have inherited.

A spiritual quest is, however, also at the root of many new groups which break away from the institutions or doctrine of the original faith community, or emerge as a radical alternative to the dominant religion and culture in a specific area. The result is increasing fragmentation in the religious world, something which is happening on all the continents.1

This may be attributed to various causes according to each region's historical, socio-cultural and economic formative influences. The West gladly resorts to interpreting it as due to the crisis of modernity, together with the "religious revival". There is nonetheless one explanation which seems to me more fundamental and universal, that based on the thirst for the sacred which is typical of the human being. The explosion of the search for religion which we are witnessing in all parts of the world, even in the most secularized societies, is proof of the persistence of religion, beneath and beyond what appears as its crisis.

As Pope John Paul II wrote in the encyclical Redemptoris Missio:

While on the one hand people seem to be pursuing material prosperity and to be sinking ever deeper into consumerism and materialism, on the other, we are witnessing a desperate search for meaning, the need for an inner life, and a desire to learn new forms and methods of meditation and prayer. Not only in cultures with strong religious elements, but also in secularized societies, the spiritual dimension of life is being sought after as an antidote to dehumanization (n.38).

Facing the growing pluralism of paths opening up before humanity's religious seeking, and the impossibility of following more than one of them to its very end, some exalt pluralism as the highest value, one which expresses the creativity and freedom of humanity, the new Prometheus of modem times. Many others, on the contrary, seek to justify pluralism by finding an element of unity among all these paths. From this aspiration derive different ways of encountering the other religions. These different modes of encounter are based on different models of a supposed unity among the various religions. We propose here to present summaries of some of these models as "food for thought" about possible converging paths among the religions being practised on the eve of the third millennium.

The transcendent unity of religions

This is the title of a work by Frithjof Schuon (De l'unite transcendante des religions, Seuil, 1979), who belongs to the esoteric tendencies represented by (among others) the Theosophic Society, the Rosicrucians, and certain branches of the Free Masons, and which has been popularized in the last thirty years under the "New Age" banner. Here the existence is taken for granted of a primordial tradition, integral but veiled, and whose nucleus of truth is only contained in and revealed by esoteric doctrines. Believers are invited to make an abstraction of the doctrines of their own religion, in order to return to their "origins". Projects for inter-religious encounter motivated by this spirit express a certain sense of mission: that of helping religions to "purify" themselves, uniting in that which is essential and which transcends each of them individually.

Unification under the label of a new religion

Many recently founded religious movements respond to the challenge of religious pluralism by presenting themselves as the goal of all humanity's spiritual seeking, as superseding all the expressions of religion which have come into being through the ages with a fuller and more global vision. This is the case with the Baha'i faith, the Unification Church, and various neo-Hindu movements.2 The inter-religious initiatives promoted by these movements cannot but be inspired by the particular model of unity which is their basis. To cite an example: the Unification Church's Council for the World's Religions claims that it will "assist believers who wish to examine the roots of the diversities and divisions within their own communities", and will "facilitate `ecumenical movements' within all the world's religions".3

A "meta-religio" or a "global spirituality?"

Not very different is the prospect, favoured by the champions of the "New Age", of a new world religion or new spirituality which transcends all existing forms of religion. In her programmatic book The Aquarian Conspiracy Marilyn Ferguson cites a declaration made to the UN assembly in October 1975 by a group of spiritual leaders:

The crises of our times are challenging the world religions to release a new spiritual force transcending religious, cultural and national boundaries into a new consciousness of the oneness of the human community and so putting into effect a spiritual dynamic towards the solutions of the world's problems... We affirm a new spirituality divested of insularity and directed towards planetary consciousness.4

Would this "meta-religio", as it is called by Barbara Marx Hubbard, co-foundress of the Foundation for Conscious Evolution,5 be the religion of the future? According to her, at the end of the evolution of humanity's consciousness no religions would exist as we know them today. "Each great faith will have served its purpose in the gestation of humanity as a species co-creative with the divine... The future of religion will occur when the majority of us know and act on this awareness."6

Without defending this "meta-religio" many diverse voices have expressed, in the course of the Second Parliament of World Religions (Chicago 1993), the necessity for a "global spirituality" which would give to the word "global" a geocentric or cosmocentric meaning. A sense of mission animates the promoters of this "global spirituality" which, they believe, should inspire a new world order. This is the meaning of "Towards a Global Spirituality" published by Patricia Mische, foundress of Global Education Associates (GEA) and coordinator of Project Global 2000. Rejecting Western religion and philosophy because of its distinction between the Creator and creation, God and the world, man [sic] and nature, she suggests a threefold journey: an inward journey, through our deep past, to the sacred source at the centre of every being and all being; an outward journey, to grow in awareness of our deep unity with all peoples and with all that is in the universe; and a forward journey, participating in the New Genesis of a world in constant evolution whose protagonist is an "interdependent God" who depends on us and acts through us.7

Unity of the human family according to the Christian doctrine

In the Christian perspective, the basis and model of inter-religious dialogue is the unity of the human family in its origins and in its ultimate end. The introduction of the conciliar declaration Nostra Aetate (n.2) puts dialogue on this basis. Further, many other documents of the Catholic magisterium and the World Council of Churches take up and develop this concept. It is not a question of uniting or unifying religions, but of reconciling persons within the common awareness that they belong to a single human family and must contribute to a global project for all humanity.

This message is surely the key to overcoming the temptations of religious extremism that continue to breed so many conflicts. As Cardinal Roger Etchegaray speaking on 29 February 1995 to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, said,

The encounter or even the clash between religions is doubtless one of the greatest challenges of our age, an even greater challenge than atheism. The religious person must learn and think the absolute of God whom he legitimately defends as a relational absolute and not as an exclusive or inclusive absolute. The most difficult and urgent thing to learn for all religions consists in opening themselves to the truth of the others, while safeguarding their own truth.8

According to the Catholic theology which imbued the 1986 inter-religious meeting in Assisi the basic unity of God's plan in creation and in redemption, which embraces the whole universe and all peoples, is more fundamental than all divergences. "These", as John Paul II said in explaining the significance of that meeting, "must be overcome on the way to achieving the grandiose project of unity which precedes creation."9 But this achievement is not the fruit of negotiation between the spokesmen of the different religions; it is the work of the Holy Spirit who alone knows the ways and times, and who silently orients history in this direction.10

In Christian theology, the communion of love that marks the trinitarian life is the model and ultimate basis of all inter-personal encounter, and of union between human beings created in the likeness of God. This most lofty model of relationships teaches us to accept others precisely in their otherness, to respect differences, and at the same time to encourage dynamic relations which are characterized by the complete giving of oneself.

Harmony among the religions

In Asia the concept of "harmony" has become a key idea for inter-religious dialogue, offering a model of unity which does not diminish differences but seeks to transcend them. While in Western culture the word "harmony" is used mainly in the literal sense, in Eastern Asia for more than two millennia the metaphorical sense has prevailed: it expresses the ideal of personal perfection, of the order of the family and of society, of participation in cosmic transformation.11 Applied to the inter-religious encounter, it has been used to express a humble and respectful meeting between different faith communities, for the good of all society.

Here it is very instructive to examine the conclusion of a series of four meetings for dialogue sponsored by the ecumenical and inter-religious office of the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences between 1992 and 1996 and held with Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Confucians and Taoists. The "leitmotif" of the four meetings was the search for harmony between persons of different religions and cultures through prayer and meditation, reflection on the causes of the lack of harmony in the contemporary world, and the commitment to build harmonious relationships with nature, with the believers of different religions, and with social and political forces.

In the Buddhist-Christian meeting, harmony was described as a characteristic of reality which all of us are called to experience. Though our ignorance and egoism is often a cause of division and conflict, harmony remains an ideal of liberation and fullness, joy and peace, a desired goal of our effort through life.

Harmony can be perceived and realized at various levels: harmony in oneself as personal integration of body and mind; harmony with the cosmos, not only living in harmony with nature, but sharing nature's gifts equitably to promote harmony among peoples; harmony with others, accepting, respecting and appreciating each one's cultural, ethnic and religious identity, building community in freedom and fellowship... and finally, harmony with God or the Absolute.12

In the Hindu-Christian encounter the participants stressed the pluralistic nature of reality. There is a rich pluralism in nature and in human society. Cultures differ from one another and religions follow diverse paths to the experience of the Absolute. The continual search for wholeness and unity of life is a constituent feature of all religions. There is an ineffable and universal rhythm which is a unifying principle of harmony. 13

While the sages of the oriental religions call this unifying principle "Tao", "Rta" or "Dharma", Christians see in the trinitarian mystery the ultimate basis of that unity in diversity which pervades cosmic reality and human society. Moreover they contemplate in the communion between the divine Persons of the Trinity a vision of interpersonal encounter based on respect for others and self- sacrificing love.

Spirituality of dialogue or of unity

The search for a spiritual exchange between believers within different religions has assumed a privileged position in inter- religious dialogue. The Catholic church also attributes great importance to it, as was testified by the plenary assembly of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue (20-24 November 1995) which was dedicated to the theme "The Dialogue of Spirituality and the Spirituality of Dialogue.14 It was meaningful to see bishops from the various continents listening, together with experts, to the talks on the concept of holiness in Buddhism, in Hinduism, in Islam and in Traditional Religion as well as in Christianity, and seeking ways of spiritual dialogue in the light of the positive experience which has already been achieved. In receiving the participants John Paul II stressed the fact that a spirituality which can give life and form to inter-religious relationships "is inseparable from the search for holiness which, in the absolute sense, belongs only to God, but which, through his tender mercy, is given also to man [sic] as a gift and a responsibility".15

A spirituality of dialogue able to imbue meetings at this level implies boundless love like Christ's, absolute gratuitousness, the capacity for inner silence and the purification of the heart. Given these conditions it is possible to perceive the mystery of unity, to experience a presence which transcends and unites all.

This is the experience of one of the participants, Fr Pierre de Bethune, who described the fruits of the spiritual exchange between Buddhist monks and Christians:

We have been able to observe that we are one and all seeking the Absolute, fascinated by his mystery, by what St Paul calls "the rich depths of God and his deep wisdom and knowledge" (cf. Rom. 11:33)... The dialogue between spiritualities begins only when the two conversation partners can communicate, over and above words, in this presence before the Mystery... This dialogue is not only the recognition of the Transcendent which they have in common, it is also the mutual recognition of this Presence and their wonder before the action of the Spirit, found in the experience of both.16

Fr de Bethune explained,

at this point, this type of spiritual encounter is not absorption into a hypothetical transcendent "unity" of religions, in a tertium quid which would be no longer either Buddhist or Christian... It does not mean entering a fog or masking divergences, but means looking at these differences - and even incompatibilities - within the framework of a common recognition of that which is essential and which transcends us.

A spirituality of unity in the inter-religious context is also proposed by Chiara Lubich, foundress of the Focolare movement. This is a lay movement which includes, in their different capacities, not only Catholics but also members of other Christian churches and other religions, and who feel part of this spiritual family. As Enzo Fondi, the person responsible in this movement for inter-religious dialogue, writes,17 spiritual encounter with Muslims or with Buddhists is based on the attitude "to make ourselves one" with the interlocutor. This involves the whole person and thus builds a communion with deep roots. The spirituality of unity gives a name to this "unknown God" who comes to guide the followers of various religious traditions as they "walk together towards the truth".18 It is Christ's presence promised to all those who are gathered in his name, at least, that is, in the love and faith which are implicit in him. Fondi adds:

We feel that we can say, from our experience, that the Holy Spirit does not only dispose souls to respect and to listen to one another. Nor is his action limited to highlighting the "seeds of the Word". The Spirit goes further. Its warmth makes these seeds bud forth into a surprising bloom, its makes the reality of Christ grow in everyone - Christians and nonChristians alike - from conversion to full spiritual maturity. He gives to dialogue a dimension and aim which transcends the partners in conversation because he makes them strive towards that unity which is a reflection of the trinitarian life: "May they be one as you and I are one" (John 17:22).

NOTES

1 On the Catholic church's attitude to this phenomenon cf. T. Gongalves, "La frammentazione del mondo religioso: un fenomeno mondiale", in Orientamenti Pedagogici, Year 43, 1966, no. 3, pp.527- 37.

2 Cf. R. Hummel, Contemporary New Religions in the West, in A.R. Brockway, and J.P. Rajashekar, eds, New Religious Movements and the Churches, Geneva, WCC Publications, 1987, p.20.

3 Ibid., p.28.

4 M. Ferguson, The Aquarian Conspiracy: Personal and Social Transformation in Our Time, Los Angeles, J.P. Archer, Inc., 1987, p.369.

5 B.M. Hubbard, "Conscious Evolution: A Meta-Religio for the 21st Century", in J. Beversluis ed., A Sourcebook for Earth's Community of Religions, rev. ed., co-published 1995 by CoNexus Press, Grand Rapids, and Global Education Associates, New York, p.79.

6 Ibid., p.81.

7 Cf. P.M. Mische, Toward a Global Spirituality, 3rd ed., New York, 1988.

8 R. Etchegaray, "Comment assurer le succes des processus de reconciliation et les soustraire aux contrecoups d'extremistes?", in Pro Dialogo, Bulletin 89, 1995/2, pp. 140-42.

9 Cf. John Paul II, "Ai Cardinali e alla Curia Romana", 22 December 1986, in Acta Apostolicae Sedis, 79, 1987, pp. 1082-90.

10 Secretariato per I non-christiani, L'atteggiamento della Chiesa di fronte ai seguaci di altre religioni, 1984, 43-44.

11 Cf. Kim Sung-Hae, S.C., "The Kingdom of God as the Christian Image of Harmony", in Inter-Religio, no. 29, summer 1996, pp.3-4.

12 Cf. FABC: BIRA V/2, Christian-Buddhist Seminar on "Working Together for Harmony in Our Contemporary World", final statement, in Pro Dialogo, Bulletin 87, 1994/2, pp.261-65.

Cf. FABC: BIRA V/3, Final Statement of the Hindu-Christian Seminar on "Working for Harmony in Our Contemporary World", in Pro Dialogo, Bulletin 91, 1996/1, pp.78-84.

14 The proceedings were published in Pro Dialogo, Bulletin 92, 1996/2, pp.133-274. " Ibid., p.142.

16 Fr de Bethune, Le dialogue des spiritualites, pp.252-53.

11 E. Fondi, "The Focolare Movement: A Spirituality at the Service of the Inter-religious Dialogue", in Pro Dialogo, Bulletin 89, 1995/ 2, pp. 155-66.

II Secreteriatus Pro Non Christanis, The Attitude of the Church towards the Followers of Other Religions, 1984, no.13.

* Teresa Osorio Goncalves holds a degree in Romance languages from the University of Coimbra, Portugal, and an MA in religious sciences from the Gregorian University, Rome. She is in charge of the topic "New Religious Movements" in the Pontifical Council for Inter- religious Dialogue.


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