Moving from inter-faith to inter-human dialogue

By Michael Marten
29 Mar 2011

On 26 October 2010, the United Nations General Assembly voted unanimously to create World Interfaith Harmony Week (http://worldinterfaithharmonyweek.com/), a resolution first proposed by King Abdullah II of Jordan, who, together with his brother Prince Hassan, has long been a proponent of such things, partly also for domestic political reasons.

The first week of February was designated as World Interfaith Harmony Week, to be marked around the world, with governments encouraged to support and promote the aims and objectives of this week.

But I think there is a fundamental problem here: I do not think there is or can be any such thing as interfaith (or interreligious) dialogue. I do not, of course, have any objection to the creation of a week dedicated to greater harmony in the world. Nobody could really deny the merits of increasing harmony between people and peoples on personal and global levels: after all, the problems of sexism, racism, war etc. are all around us, and indeed, often seem to overwhelm us. The problem here lies with the ‘interfaith’ element.

Of course, there can be dialogue between individuals who might describe themselves in particular faith terms. But whilst acknowledging that there are differences between the terms ‘faith’ and ‘religion’, and that what 10 or 20 years ago used to be ‘interreligious dialogue’ is now ‘interfaith dialogue’ (and I caricature only slightly here), I want to argue that the premises of such dialogue as ‘interfaith dialogue’ do not stand up to substantial critical scrutiny.

Tracing the usage of the term ‘religion’ over the centuries, we can see it changing in different contexts. For example, in the Catholic/Protestant West, we can point very broadly (and, admittedly, rather simplistically) to changes in understanding over recent centuries:

1. initially seen as being Christian (having religion) or being apostate (not having religion), this changed with colonialism to:

2. an understanding of religion predicated upon a different form of normativity and closely connected to racism: people were either religious (Christian or some other – generally ‘inferior’ – recognised form of belief that western Christians considered to be in some way similar to their understanding of Christianity; the ‘creation of Hinduism’ being a perfect example of this, as scholars such as Geoffrey Oddie [http://www.uk.sagepub.com/books/Book229061] have discussed), or they were superstitious or heathen (their practices were not understood by western missionaries and colonialists; so-called ‘African traditional religions’ are a perfect example of this), on to:

3. a more contemporary ideological understanding of many religions, of which Christianity is but one amongst equals, alongside the so-called ‘other great religions of the world’.

The main problem with this understanding is that it equates an essentialised understanding of what Christian faith is with an essentialised understanding of what Muslim tradition, Jewish practice, Hindu belief etcetera, is. In doing so, all of these traditions are divorced from the individuals who see themselves as adherents, practitioners, devotees and so on – even the description of what people do and are in these different contexts is problematic.

If we think about the term ‘faith’ we can point to similar problems: for example, what does faith mean for a Christian, and what does it mean for a Jew? Firstly there is again the problem of essentialisation – ask one Christian or one Jew about their understanding, and their Christian or Jewish neighbour may well offer quite a different one. But even if we could put this aside (and I do not think we really can), we might say that a Christian would point to the centrality of salvific belief through the death and resurrection of Jesus for her ‘faith’, whilst a Jew would point to the centrality of grateful obedience and freedom in God’s law for his ‘faith’. In other words, we are comparing almost entirely different understandings of belief and practice – whilst pretending that all these things can be described equally as ‘faith’ (or indeed, religion).

We can see these problems even on the WIHW website, which has the byline ‘Love of God and Love of the Neighbour, or Love of the Good and Love of the Neighbour’. An ‘or’ clause is certainly one way of attempting to cover all bases: it is, after all, something of a cliché to ask who the ‘God’ is that a Buddhist might be directing their attention to (a Buddhist from Britain, India, Tibet…? Again, this is essentialisation), but whether ‘the Good’ is an appropriate alternative universal truth comparable to any given individual’s understanding of God, has to be open to question. The sentiment behind the creation of ‘Harmony Beads’ (http://worldinterfaithharmonyweek.com/harmony-beads/) for use in prayer by Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and Catholics is another example of such muddled thinking.

So if neither faith nor religion can serve as useful comparative or relational concepts, it is perhaps intellectually more honest and practically more fruitful to abandon the pretence of ‘interfaith’ dialogue in favour of simple ‘interhuman’ dialogue. It is, after all, in relationships that we discover ourselves and one another, rather than in monolithic ideological constructs founded on varying precepts. If our theologies, principles, religious laws or injunctions hinder or prevent such relationships, then that is surely what we should be seeking to address and change.

After all, if dialogue between individuals can be centred around a demanding common task such as the creation of just economic systems and sustainable ecological environments, the overcoming of patriarchy or liberation from oppressive political regimes (the list could go on), then these human connections will also lead to improved understanding of what moves and motivates engagement by each individual, whether they describe this as faith, religion, belief, practice, ritual… and that will be a more meaningful encounter than any World Interfaith Harmony Week can possibly lead to.

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© Michael Marten is Lecturer in Postcolonial Studies at the University of Stirling and an Ekklesia associate. More on his work, background and publications history is summarised here.

Andrew Hass contributed substantially to this article.


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