Recently, on the same day, I came across two religious news items that made me think again about a topic which has long interested me: that of dialogue between religious traditions. The first item was a story in the British Catholic periodical The Tablet on November 10, 2012. It concerns a collaborative project of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Lutheran World Federation. The plan is to issue a joint statement on the meaning of the Reformation in 2017, which will be the 500th anniversary of the historic event when (as every Protestant child learned in Sunday school) “Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses on the castle door of Wittenberg”. (Never mind that the actual event was quite undramatic—the door in question was the place to put up notices for an academic disputation, a common practice at universities at the time, which is what Luther was doing.)
The head of the Pontifical Council, the Swiss Cardinal Kurt Koch, attended the annual synod of the Protestant Church in Germany (which includes Lutherans and Calvinists in one ecclesial body). He used the occasion to make a statement that must have grated on the ears of many in the audience. He said that the institution of Protestantism separate from Rome should not be seen as the success of the Reformation but rather as its failure, since the Reformers’ intent had been to reform the Roman Catholic Church, not to leave it. He added that the Reformation would only be successful if the separation was overcome (which, as the Protestant chairman of the synod pointed out, would require the highly unlikely submission of his flock to papal authority).
Needless to say, the announcement of the 2017 joint statement was full of expressions of mutual respect and affection. Cardinal Koch also hinted that Rome might make some compromises to entice Protestants (as the saying goes) to come “swim in the Tiber”, along the lines recently made for Anglicans—their clergy could remain married, they could continue to use some of their accustomed liturgical practices, and the like. These accommodations have indeed appealed to “high church” Anglo-Catholics, and they might appeal to some “high” Lutherans (some call themselves “Evangelical Catholics” and have argued that Protestantism was a reform movement within the Western church, a movement that has now achieved its goals and is therefore no longer necessary).
It is historically correct that the Reformation originally intended a reform of the Catholic Church, not the creation of a separate ecclesial body. However, in the meantime a lot of water has flown down the Tiber, the Rhine, the Thames, and some very diverse forms of the Christian faith have developed on the two sides of the divide. The average Catholic or the average Protestant would be very surprised if told by a committee of theologians that nothing significant now divides them.
The other news story was posted online by Reuters, the international news agency located in London, on November 21, 2012. The story was about the inauguration of the King Abdullah Centre for Interfaith and International Dialogue (KAICIID) in a baroque palace in Vienna. It is a very unusual institution, having been established by a treaty between the governments of Saudi Arabia, Austria and Spain, who appoint the governing board. The Saudi government has allocated 15 million euros to set up the Centre and promised 10 to 15 million euros annually for the first three years. This rather remarkable initiative is a continuation of other comparable efforts by King Abdullah (who is 89, and presumably in somewhat of a hurry). The stated intention is to (cautiously) improve Saudi relations with other faiths. Thus a meeting in Mecca in 2005 endorsed interfaith dialogue; in 2007 the King visited Pope Benedict XVI; in 2008 the King called together a multireligious conference in Madrid, where he met with Christian, Jewish, Hindu and Buddhist leaders. He has also proposed a center in Riyadh, his capital, to promote dialogue between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims, a particularly explosive topic right now. The new Vienna Centre, although its first director is Saudi, is overseen by a board consisting of three Muslims, three Christians, and one representative each of Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism (including an Israeli rabbi, who announced that he would quit at once if the Centre was found to propagate radical Islamism).
King Abdullah has faced strong resistance from the traditionalist Wahhabi establishment in his country. The Austrian media gave (in Reuters’ words) a “frosty welcome” to the new Centre: The Austrian government was criticized for co-sponsoring the Centre. Mention was made of the crass contradiction between the aim of dialogue and the domestic and foreign policies of the Saudi regime, such as the complete absence of religious freedom within the Kingdom and the support for Wahhabi-type Islam in Bosnia, Kosovo and many places in the Middle East.
The two stories already indicate the great diversity of dialogue initiatives. Both share the qualities of mutual respect and voluntary participation already implied by the very term “dialogue”, thus excluding the quasi-debates into which Jews were coerced in the Christian Middle Ages, with the intention of humiliating and/or converting them. (This practice has been imprinted in Jewish collective memory, leading to an almost instinctive suspicion of the motives behind Christian invitations to discuss interfaith questions.) But the stories disclose a very basic difference between dialogues motivated by, respectively, theological and political interests. There are no obvious political interests involved in the dialogue about the Reformation. With the (hopefully waning) exception of Northern Ireland, Catholics and Protestants have stopped killing each other long ago (and even in that exceptional case one may doubt whether the conflict is really about religion). They are driven to seek greater unity by facing European secularity, which affects them both and which has made Benedict XVI to call for the re-evangelization of what used to be Christendom.
By contrast, King Abdullah’s campaign to put a tolerant face on his regime occurs against the background of what the late Samuel Huntington called “the bloody frontiers of Islam”. I have no insight into the mind of the King. Perhaps he is genuinely motivated by a more tolerant understanding of Islam than has been held by the religious establishment in Saudi Arabia until now. But one may assume that there is a political motive as well. The Saudi regime is characterized by a very conservative version of the faith (which it propagates both domestically and abroad), by the oppression of women, by a barbaric system of criminal justice, and by the complete absence of religious freedom. Such a regime can survive for a considerable period of time, if equipped with sufficient means of repression and if it can strictly control all communications with the outside world. The Saudi economy is too much interlinked with the world for such isolation, and it is too much dependent on its de facto alliance with the United States due to the profound threat from Iran looming across the Persian Gulf. Therefore, quite apart from the King’s theological preferences, a mellowing of his regime may well be in the interest of its survival.
Peaceful dialogue between religions has happened before in history. The so-called conviviencia between Muslims, Christians and Jews was not always characteristic of Spain under Islamic rule, but there were periods when amicable religious and philosophical conversations between scholars of the three faiths did take place, with very positive consequences (such as the transmission of Aristotle to Christian Europe through Arabic and Latin translations). Frederick II (1194-1250), the Hohenstaufen ruler of Sicily, a skeptic and adversary of papal power, also encouraged dialogue between Christians and Muslims. And the Moghul Emperor Akbar (1542-1605) delighted in religious debates of Muslim scholars with Hindus, Jains, Zoroastrians and Portuguese Jesuits (Buddhists, alas, had been chased out of India by Akbar’s predecessors).
But there has been a veritable explosion of dialogue programs since the middle of the last century. The ecumenical movement of Christian churches had begun earlier, but it reached a certain climax with the founding in 1948 of the World Council of Churches, which has sponsored dialogue with any religious community that is willing. Following the Second Vatican Council, the Roman Curia set up an array of agencies to engage in dialogue with other Christians, with non-Christian religions, with Jews (a special case not to be grouped with other non-Christians), and finally with non-believers.
The last of these, ponderously named Secretariatus Pro Non-Credentibus, had a serious problem: It was eager to have this dialogue, but it did not know with whom to have it. Unlike the other interlocutors, the non-credenti cannot be found in the phone book. In 1969 Cardinal Koenig, the Archbishop of Vienna, was head of the Secretariat. He had read some things I had written, and he asked me to help organize a conference in Rome with the purpose of identifying just who and where these people were. I was at the time a quite junior sociologist of religion. The invitation was flattering. The conference itself turned to be a fascinating experience.
This is not the place to go into the details of all the dialogues that have been going on: Catholic/Lutheran, Lutheran/Calvinist, Christian/Muslim, Christian/Jewish (much of this one, understandably, concerned with the Christian roots of anti-Semitism and with the question of how to prevent this ever recurring), Christian/ Hindu (a key figure in this was Raimundo Panikkar, a Catholic priest who lived some of the time like an Indian “holy man”), Christian/Buddhist (some of it highly sophisticated, as in the Kyoto School of Mahayana philosophy). But one can distinguish between five principal types:
1. Dialogue motivated by a desire to understand so as to convert the “the other”. One may call this the missiological type. It has widely come to be viewed negatively in Christian circles, except among Evangelicals.
2. Dialogue with the sole aim of enhancing scholarship.
3. Dialogue to facilitate humanitarian action (say, for coping with epidemics or natural disasters.
4. Dialogue to facilitate political action (say, to resist dictatorship).
5. Finally, dialogue to enrich one’s religious understanding or practice.
With the exception of the first type (with which I, for one, have great difficulty), most people will regard these as acceptable motivations for dialogue.
Put simply, much of the time dialogue between religious traditions is a useful, sometimes a very useful activity. But I would suggest two caveats. First: One should not get lost in the details. Theologians who converse over a period of time can often find areas of agreement. Theologians tend to deal in doctrinal abstractions. An interesting case was the “religion conversation” between a number of high-profile leaders of the Protestant Reformation in 1529 at the newly founded University of Marburg. Martin Luther and Philipp Melanchthon came from Wittenberg, Ulrich Zwingli from Zurich, Martin Bucer from Strassburg. They did end up signing a joint statement, much of it concerned with the understanding of the eucharist. The main tension was between the Germans and the Swiss. Yet at one point of the conversation Luther exclaimed to Zwingli: “Out of you speaks a different spirit”. In other words, theologians might find the language to claim a unity about this or that doctrine, while ignoring that there may be a profound difference in the “spirit” over and beyond particular doctrinal formulations.
Second caveat: Not to forget that theologians are a small minority in any community of believers. Lay believers often intuit the “spirit” of a tradition better than theologians. A good example, I think, is the so-called filioque issue. In 1979 the World Council of Churches set up a study group to examine this issue. It consisted of Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Protestant theologians. The issue is complex and has deep roots in history. The Nicene Creed, which all major Christian traditions regard as authoritative, declared that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father, and together with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified”. There were some varying readings in both Greek and Latin versions, but beginning with the Third Council of Toledo in 589 the Latin version of the Creed inserted a word in the article, declaring that the Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son” (in Latin, filioque). The immediate motive was probably to distance the Visigothic church in Spain from the rather popular Arian heresy, which was perceived as having denigrated the divinity of Jesus.
Whatever the original motive, this amended Creed spread throughout Western Christendom, became normative in the Roman Catholic Church, and was taken over by the latter’s Protestant offspring. It was strongly opposed in the East, deemed to be profoundly heretical. It was defined as crucial by both West and East, and served to legitimate the final schism of 1054 when, in one of the most dramatic events in Christian history (this one, I think, was truly dramatic), papal legates marched into Hagia Sophia during the liturgy and deposited on the high altar the decree excommunicating the Patriarch of Constantinople. (The latter then reciprocated by excommunicating the Pope.)
Were there genuine theological problems in this controversy? There were. The Eastern version enhanced the place of the Holy Spirit within the Trinity, the Western version enhanced the place of the Son. But it is very clear that the schism was driven by very mundane political interest of the rival regimes in the West and the East, respectively blessed by Rome and Constantinople. But what happened some 900 years later? Two years after the filioque committee was established, it did reach a conclusion. Basically, it supported the Eastern position. In the so-called Klingenthal Memorandum (I believe it was named after a member of the committee) it recommended that all churches should eliminate the filioque from the Nicene Creed.
This recommendation had some concrete consequences. Anglicans agreed with it, in statements by a sequence of Lambeth Conferences (the periodic meetings of the world’s Anglican churches). In 1994 the Episcopal Church in the USA decided that the filioque should be dropped from the next edition of the Book of Common Prayer. An Orthodox/Roman Catholic consultation agreed in 2003 that the filioque issue should no longer be considered as justifying the schism between the two communities. Interesting, no doubt. (By the way, I am interested.) But how many non-theologians in Christian churches cared about this issue, or even were aware of it? As to the piety of the masses of believers, their assumption about the distinctiveness of their own tradition remains unshaken. They know that they are distinctive. Anyone who spends half an hour each in an Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant worship service will agree with them. A “different spirit” indeed!
Finally, a brief sociological question: Why is all this dialogue activity going on now? I think that there is a clear answer: It is one of the results of an ever more pervasive pluralism in modern societies. The easiest and most commonly used definition of pluralism (or, if one prefers, plurality) is a situation where people with different social identities, worldviews and value systems coexist and interact peacefully. All the forces of modernity bring this situation about—through population growth, urbanization, migration, education, and all the media of pervasive communication. This means that it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain or re-establish a religious or moral monopoly in a society. The pluralistic situation can indeed be reversed by the application of massive coercion, but with the result of enormous human and economic costs. Or a society can be torn apart by an ongoing, possibly intermittent civil war between the different ideological camps. To avoid these equally unappealing alternatives the camps—in this instance, the different religious communities—must try to understand and to collaborate with each other. Such dialogue is of course greatly facilitated if religious freedom has been institutionalized in the society. Quite apart from the intrinsic moral and philosophical value of religious freedom, it is one of the pillars of social order in a modern society.