To engage in inter-religious dialogue is a tremendous moment of encounter. An encounter primarily between individuals. A great challenge at the same time. For to enter dialogue is to run the risk of being transformed positively by the witness and testimony of the other. It is this challenge which at the same time holds great reward for those who partake in dialogue wholeheartedly as individuals and not simply as individual representations of a collective identity.
Here lies the first challenge to see the other as someone from whom one can learn; that their experience has something deeply meaningful to offer. Sadly, many fall at the first hurdle. The individual is missed and we are left with only a shell, an appearance of dialogue, where inter-religious dialogue is seen as the destination and not as one of many starting points to spiritual quest. Which maybe is why some remain disillusioned that the promise of dialogue did not bear more fruit after initial discussion sessions.
For purposes of context crucial we state a distinction between the term “inter-religion” and inter-religious dialogue. They are not one and the same. “For centuries this inter-religious consciousness was suppressed, the only way to redeem it is to clearly and whole-heartedly acknowledge the reality and necessity of multi-religion….inter-religious dialogue is one of the many ways in which inter-religion becomes a conscious process.” (Hasan Askari, from Inter-Religion, 1977)
If inter-religious dialogue is only about acquiring knowledge about the faith of one’s spiritual neighbour then it is not “dialogue”. It is a study of religion and there are many ways to acquire this socio-historic knowledge outside of a dialogue meetings. That cannot be the goal of dialogue. If it is then it is a secondary not a primary goal. The goal at its core surely must be of encounter, to bear co-witness leading to mutual mission.
Should inter-religious dialogue remain an institutional formality then I fear it may never rise to fulfill its promise of deep and meaningful engagement between peoples of diverse faiths and backgrounds. It is as individuals we dialogue not as collective identities. To arrive at such a door of dialogue presupposes some deep sense of inquiry about the very fact of a multi-religious world. A knocking upon an inner door followed by entry in to dialogue which is both with the other and within oneself. Both individuals become doors for each other’s entry in to a moment of “presence” before one another. A presence that is both independent of them and also within them.
To partake of inter-religious dialogue is to ask the question, consciously or not, “Why do we have more than one religion upon our planet?”(Hasan Askari). Thus to engage in inter-religious dialogue is also to peer in to the very obvious phenomenon of more than one religious and spiritual witness. It is a call to abolish exclusivity and one-sidedness, first and foremost within the mind of the individual. To break free of the grip of collective hypnosis; that one’s own tradition alone holds the truth exclusively:
“Perhaps we need more than one religion. How could the mystery of the Transcendent Reality be equated with the form of one faith and practice, or with one state or sign of a given religious experience! That there was something essentially desirable and positive about the very existence of more than one religion. Accepting multi religion as a theological necessity, almost a blessing. Religious diversity was thus a school of true humility and patience". (Hasan Askari: Spiritual Quest - An Inter Religious Dimension)
My own journey spiritually, which includes a deep appreciation for inter-religious dialogue, began at the hand of my teacher and friend, my late father Professor Hasan Askari (1932-2008) http://spiritualhuman.wordpress.com/hasan-askari/ . From a young age I was immersed in the work of who many regard as one of the pioneers of inter-religious dialogue. At first it was a curiosity to know more about the work of a father before me but later it became, through love, a life’s endeavour and remains so. Religious diversity has always been a part of my life. Looking back I was fortunate in other ways too by having a childhood in both India and England. The spiritual diversity which was overtly a part of my life in India continued in England. However, it continued in a more subtle manner but nonetheless significant.
I came to accept, very early on, religious diversity as a sign of deep inquiry rather than something to confront. Furthermore, I came to accept it was not enough for me to be simply curious about the variety of religious practices, rites and rituals, but to move on from that understanding and integrate it in to my spiritual life, an inner life. I was interested in the individual before me as much as I was interested in my own individuality.
Spiritually I needed the presence of the other to help me consider the mystery of religious diversity. Without the other, who bears no outward resemblance to one’s collective history, to the faith in to which one is born, without the other there is no diversity. Without diversity there remains no self-limiting principle within the life of humanity to remind us of the dangers in making the most exclusive and one-sided claims to truth and finality.
I was not interested in pseudo dialogue. I was interested in not only what the other before me had to say of their faith but more so interested in a “sentiment” which can be shared despite outward differences. I was interested in a most ancient and beautiful term, the essence of one’s being, namely soul (atma/psyche/ruh). Overtime I realised that unless one is prepared to stand apart from exclusive truth claims, from the baggage of collective identity, breaking free from the weight of collective burden that one was somehow responsible for the entire collective faith of one’s tradition, one would never meet the individual in dialogue. There would always remain a hesitation to engage fully. There would be no dialogue let alone encounter only a repetition of well known themes and objections ending in not dialogue but monologue. There would be neither sentiment nor the rising to a moment of being present to one another in co-witness.
Is inter-religious dialogue failing? Is it yet to deliver on its promise? It maybe too early to say despite the great efforts made over the previous four to five decades. For example, from Ajaltoun consultation to Lebanon and Broumana in Colombo, Europe and the United States. From those early days of commitment inter-religious dialogue has now become a global phenomenon which must be regarded as some measure of success. Today we have the “Common Word” initiative – Love of God and Love of Neighbour. In the end as in the beginning the common word for me literally and spiritually is simply “Life”. To ponder this mighty question of “Life” spiritually one cannot help but stumble upon soul as the principle of “Life”. Perhaps, just perhaps, what is missing from inter-religious dialogue may be met by reviving the classical discourse on soul.
Musa Askari, son of the late Professor Syed Hasan Askari, is an independent thinker continuing the work of his teacher and guide. He does not belong to any religious or political organisation. Spiritually at home in any and all houses of worship and systems of thought which echo a universal outlook supporting a wholesome and meaningful engagement with the world about us. A world that is both a wonder and mystery; secular and religious, material and spiritual, physical and meta-physical. Dedicated to the revival of the classical discourse on Soul, Inter-Religious understanding & Spiritual Humanism as an alternative ideology to secularism and religious fundamentalism.