Cambridge, MA. So here is the fourth of my entries on my trip to India, this time regarding interreligious dialogue. (At the end of this entry, I will respond to three of the comments you’ve kindly posted in past weeks.) A good part of my trip was involved in what we can call interreligious dialogue — it is hard, in a way, to visit India without engaging in dialogue. On the one side, it is possible to say that dialogue is either so much a part of our lives today that it is simply our way of being religious — as Fr. Professor Peter Phan might say say, being religious interreligiously. As you know, I have argued in this space in past months that the Church itself seems irreversibly committed to dialogue, as 2008 and 2009 presentations by Pope Benedict to interreligious gatherings have made clear.
     One can also say that dialogue is deeply engrained in Indian ways of being-religious. Indians have always lived interreligiously, different religious communities rubbing shoulders, people seeing each other’s shrines, observing each other’s festivals, hearing each other’s music. In July, for instance, I visited some young Jesuits living in a slum community in Pune, India, and their commitment to living there — though not a project in dialogue — simply had to be interreligious, because Hindus, Muslims, and Christians live right next to one another, on the same narrow streets: no religious privacy is possible, and religious identity becomes a shared public event. It seems also in a way that institutional progress made after Vatican II has not been reversed: Indian Churches look different now, perhpas more "Hindu" in some ways, and seminarians and young nuns are trained in interreligious respect; so too, ashrams such as the one at Shantivanam (which I've mentioned before) flourish, and continue to weave together many elements of Indian culture, as Hindu and Christian symbols and instincts are brought together in harmony. Those who reject communication and preach separation are definitely in the minority.
     But there are some reasons to think that enthusiasm for dialogue is not as strong as it had been in the past. Like ecumenism in the West, dialogue in India has in a sense reached its limits: once people have learned to live together in respect, and no longer attack one another, no longer demeaning one another’s religions — what then? Here, Christian Churches are still separate, and ecumenism seems to be going nowhere; in India, it has been hard to get much beyond respect, into deeper, richer interreligious learning. Or, from a rather angle, it may be that some Indian Christians doubt the formal differences among religions presupposed by much dialogue — as if Hindus and Christians are significantly different, separate groups, such that they need to come to together, to talk to one another. Suppose differences are not so absolute — suppose Indian individuals are already, by nature, interreligious persons, sharing much culturally and spiritually — such that being entirely Christian or entirely Hindu, one on each side of the table as it were, no longer seems to make sense? While in India, I came across a fine new book by Fr. Michael Amaladoss, SJ, called Beyond Dialogue, in which he asks us to think beyond the fixities of identity much dialogue presupposes. We need to be careful not to assume that religious differences are so obvious and settled, that dialogue is a necessary task. It is a more dynamic, richer learning across boundaries, such that we learn and teach, in regular contact with our sisters and brothers of other religions.
     Dialogue over a long period is also different from dialogue as a once-a-year phenomenon. As I mentioned in the first of this series, I have studied Hinduism for more than three decades, and have been visiting Chennai (Madras) for almost 30 years; some of my Hindu friends in Chennai I have known for 25 years. This means, I realized this summer, that dialogue is well thought of at a deeper level: dialogue between Hindus and Christians is accompanied by (what Ramon Panikkar and others have called) “the interior dialogue,” the transformation that occurs in each of us through serious and longer term learning across religious boundaries — so that we can no longer neatly divide ourselves religiously, one religion here, the other there. The long-term effect of my study of Hinduism, and visiting of temples, and so on, means that when I come to a dialogue, I cannot bring a “strictly Christian, entirely non-Hindu” persona to the dialogue; the conversations we are having, are also happening within me too. As a general rule, one might say: longer term commitment to dialogue need not lead to “unity of religions” or “disillusionment at where dialogue leads,” but it can prompt a deeper transformation of identity, since on each side of the dialogue, we are already changed even before we come into contact with another on a particular occasion. This does not mean that all religions are the same, or that for the Christian a total commitment to Christ becomes optional; it is simply that years of learning affect how it is that we find, receive, and live our commitment to Christ, in an interreligious and not solely Christian cultural context.
     Two other points, to close. First, while in India, I was constantly in conversation with Hindus, and often able to carry on somewhat deeper conversations across religious boundaries on smaller and subtler points of theology and spirituality. Indeed, since Hinduism and Catholicism are complex, it is best that dialogue occurs on a smaller scale: How are we thinking about grace these days? What does worship mean, concretely? How does your liturgical calendar work? Why is fasting good? How does my religion or yours deal with secularization or scientific advances? What does your community now think about other religions? Can Hindus and Christians agree that our religions are still changing over time? It is on this smaller scale level that dialogue is actually very interesting — even if such conversations do not promise large-scale, major shifts in how religions are thought about.
     Second, I also ran into continuing doubts about the motives for interreligious learning. Several of my best “dialogues” in India were with Hindus who are still deeply skeptical about why Catholics engage in dialogue. After all, for hundreds of years Catholics have tried to convert Hindus; both John Paul II and Benedict XVI have insisted that dialogue is part of a larger work of evangelization; preachers (Catholic, though more Protestant) still regularly contrast Christian wisdom with Hindu idolatry and darkness. So aren’t Catholics like me really intending, somewhere down the road, to convert Hindus? There are numerous Hindu websites dedicated to combatting Christian mission; see for instance, christianaggression.org One Hindu gentleman insisted that however much any of us tries to be open and inclusive, in the end we all believe, or should believe, in the truth of our own religion, and its superiority over other religions. Another Hindu, voicing a view others have often expressed, said that everyone should mind his own business, attend to his own religion: other religions should be respected from a distance, left alone. When such doubts are raised, I tend to argue that while history does teach us sober lessons, today we can still prefer a new and non-competitive way of encounter as our first and ordinary manner of action — dialogue that is not a matter of conversion — in the sense of getting people to switch from one religion to another — nor a matter of competition, whereby gains in one religion mean losses in another. It can and should be more an exchange that is deeper, part of the life-breath of each tradition. But even now, as I write, I know that there will still be some Hindus, intelligent and thoughtful, who simply cannot believe that dialogue is anything but a way of undermining Hinduism. I know too that there are some Catholics who believe that dialogue should be subordinate to evangelization, even in a narrow sense of aiming at conversions in large numbers. Their views need to be respected, since we cannot make dialogue into a new orthodoxy that all must accept.
     In my next (and last) entry in this series, I will talk about my research, what I learned in terms of my academic work while in India. But to close this entry, several quick responses to your comments: 1) In response to my entry on visiting temples, MMK, a Hindu, said, “I am very curious about how your other Jesuit brethren respond to your studies in comparative theology. For one such as myself, often these experiences degenerate to a ‘condescending tolerance’ and a sense of superiority for being so.” Well, yes, we Jesuits are a diverse and clever lot, and it is hard for us to learn deeply from what each other does; while most Jesuits I know appreciate my work, in general terms, it would be rare for a fellow Jesuit to read more thoroughly or deeply what I write, or explore the implications of where my work leads. We all do this — we see, we admire, and then walk away from what others among us are doing. So while I find fellow Jesuits quite supportive of my work, only rarely do I find a fellow Jesuit who has the time and interest to respond intelligently to my work.” Such is life! 2) In response to my entry on visiting temples, Robert Buckmeier detected my “obvious restraint from judgment,” and asks, “what is your religious conviction, as well as your spiritual interest?” The latter part of my entry on temples was all about restraint from judgment, since judgments often enough end up being too loose or too negative; my approach, to visiting temples, has been more of the nature of saying, “Come and see.” Moreover: blogs, even for America, are not the place for deep theologizing! Much of my more extended, serious writing is theological reflection on the spiritual learning that is possible when we take each other’s religions seriously. 3) As for Chris who asks about the rather different attention of Swami Abhishiktananda and Bede Griffiths to the non-dual traditions of Hinduism — I can only agree with the implication that non-dualism of a radical sort is something quite different from more evident, ordinary temple worship; I respect those who move in that direction, but I find myself more drawn to temples and positive worship: God personal, incarnate. Moreover, I do not think that non-dualism, as usually posed, is a higher or better form of Hinduism than theistic, temple Hinduism. We need positive interreligious learning, as well as the path of silence and non-duality.
     Thanks for these comments, and I welcome your posting more such comments.