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