Prof. Günther: The Role of the Interfaith Dialogue in the World Today

The following lines are the text of Prof. Hans-Christian Günther lecture in Institute for Humanities and Cultural Studies
Directions Save of Iran at 23 June 2018.

The Role of the Interfaith Dialogue in the World Today

  1. What is the place of the interfaith dialogue?

Even if seen from a non religious, purely social perspective it is eminently evident that one should wish that different religious creeds should talk to each other. Different religions or tendencies of one religion inevitably coexist and in order to coexist peacefully they must interact peacefully, i.e. confront each other in dialogue and not in violent confrontation. In the world today this is – even more eminently than in the past – not only a matter between states with different religious identities, at present we live in a period of major streams of migration and this inevitably enhances the tendency to multireligious societies.

However, if the interfaith dialogue is seen in a socio-political context, there is today another factor to be taken into account that is hitherto as far as I see rather neglected. There are many states – and in fact these are foremost the states formed by European culture and thus a still very powerful  part of the world – which define themselves as secular, i.e. religiously neutral. Whether they really live up to that claim is another question. More crucial is the fact that today in many such states a large part, often even the majority of the population is areligious; or even people who claim to be religious propagate aggressively the ideology of secularism as the ideology of an areligious state. Moreover, there is a country like Japan where really the majority of the population is atheist, and religion has not more than a decorative role in public affairs. There is even a state like China which defines itself decisively as atheist, as a representative of an ideology which explicitly excludes adherence to any religion.

Thus it seems to me that not only a dialogue between different religions but also a dialogue between religion and secularism and atheism is urgently required.

However, apart from this – in my view – more than necessary supplement to the interfaith dialogue stricto sensu, if we have talked above of the interfaith dialogue in a socio-political context we are still very far from a real understanding of what the interfaith dialogue actually is about. Seen from a socio-political perspective we are still outside of religion. As long as we move in this dimension the dialogue between religions is something imposed upon the participants from outside. The rules of such a dialogue as well as what this dialogue is supposed to yield as its result is fixed from an outside player presiding over this dialogue.

If this were the case such a dialogue would be a futile exercise, it would actually not be anything which deserves the name dialogue. If this dialogue were only about rules of cohabitation these rules would better be just imposed on the partners from outside. And thus there is little chance these rules would actually work. Religious creeds have their roots deeper in the hearts of religious people than that their convictions could yield to the pressure of rules dictated from outside. The interfaith dialogue is only possible and meaningful if religions themselves feel the need for such a dialogue, if religious people feel that their own religious convictions are pointed to an encounter with the convictions of others.

And indeed, I am convinced this is the case. In order to see the reasons for this need of dialogue inside religions we need to define somehow clearer what religion is, or maybe – more modestly – what the phenomenon religion is about, beyond the boundaries of any specific religion or group of religions.

  1. Human imperfection

Despite all valuable attempts to define the phenomenon we call religion, using a Latin word which already in Latin culture has been distorted in its meaning, there is no such definition. Rather one can say that the word religion because of its complete change of meaning by being transferred from pagan Roman religion to Christianity has become so devoid of any concrete sense that it can be used for a large number of world views from different cultures that are very different not only in their detailed content but already in their basic approach.

What unites, however, these phenomena is that they in some way deal with a sphere beyond the human one. How this sphere is approached, let alone how it is more or less tentatively described, differs widely, and it seems to me that it is fruitless to start to approach religion, so to speak, from above. The superhuman sphere is eo ipso one that transcends full human understanding; thus to understand how this sphere is seen in any specific ,religion’ comes at the end of the individual study of every religious tradition. It is the last and most difficult step for someone approaching any given religion from outside.

If full understanding is eo ipso impossible, even to enter the specific perspective of any given religious denomination on this sphere can only be achieved by an intense study of this religion, a study which does not exhaust itself in an academic approach but calls for the whole person to expose himself to a religious experience. And experience is the proper way to approach a religious tradition in its essence, it is the only approach which does not remain on the surface.

In saying this we understand at the same time that the essence of religion – whatever religion is – is inseparably bound to the experience of the limits of the human mind, the limits of human nature.

If this is so the religious person experiences in the most acute sense the imperfection of his mind and his nature. His religion is the way in which he tries to overcome this imperfection by striving to communicate with that which transcends him as a human being. However in his attempt of communication with this superhuman the closer he comes to that what is beyond him, the more he grasps it in its superhuman nature the more he realizes at the same time his human deficiency.

Thus true religiosity leads to humbleness; to put it in the language of an explicitly theistic religion: man finds god in humbling himself in front of god’s universal and infinite greatness and in finding god he finds himself exalted to god as the imperfect human being who can only be whole and redeemed by extinguishing his imperfect self in complete dedication to god’s infinite greatness and power.

It’s this humility which opens the true believer in his particular religion to the dialogue with other religious traditions. In fact there are religious traditions which do in no way claim exclusivity but allow for a multiple religiosity as surely do Buddhism – at least in many forms -, Confucianism, Shintoism or Shamanistic religion.

But let us take the great monotheistic religions, based on a divine revelation which demands exclusive dedication to this and only this divine truth.

I think the believer in such a religion must feel even more acutely his own imperfection in the face of the divine truth revealed to him. God’s revelation in the scriptures of Jews, Christians and Muslims confronts man most eminently with the divine greatness and truth. The believer in such a religion encounters god’s presence not only in the outside world that points him in its inscrutability towards god he encounters god directly in god’s personal revelation to him.

I think as persons educated in an age old Jewish, Christian  or Muslim tradition we take god’s revelation in the scriptures or the Quran far too much as a matter of course: that we can experience god in his word to us is an extraordinary experience which, if we really open ourselves up to this experience, shakes and disturbs us in our innermost existence. If we really experience god’s presence in his word to us this is as frightening and disturbing as was the encounter with god for Moses in the Thora or Jesaja in the book of prophets of the Old Testament. The fear of God is the begin of wisdom says the Jewish scripture over and over again.

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This fear of God will teach us caution in our approach to the word of god. It forbids us ever to think we have understood it well enough, let alone fully or once for ever. Understanding the word of god means a lifelong effort to try to understand it, knowing that we can only understand as little as our human mind can grasp and as much as god’s grace allows us to grasp.

By giving us his word god wraps his eternal truth in the imperfect language of man, he adapts it to our limited faculties, and moreover, if god reveals himself to man, he cannot but reveal an eternal truth at a certain moment in time and at a certain place, because human beings exist in time and space, and thus he adapts an eternal truth to the particular limits of human understanding at a certain time and at a certain place.

Thus first of all trying to understand the word of god we shall become cautious, and true eagerness to understand and act according to god’s command will make us constantly doubt our limited human  faculties and point us to our dependency on god’s grace to understand and obey him. As a universal one the eternal truth of god is valid for all human beings. Thus our approach to the word of god is the common effort of many human beings dedicated to understanding and obeying the command of god. Although every one of us is ultimately alone in front of god we mutually assist each other, we learn from each other in the community of believers, we find help and guidance in others, more experienced and knowledgeable in the study of the word of god and in living according to it.

But if the truth of god is a universal one it cannot be exclusive to even a group of people. The word of god has been revealed at a certain time or certain times to certain persons but it is aimed at all human beings. Its universal character implies that it speaks to all human beings at any time in any place if they open their heart to it, if they strive to understand it.

Thus as the limits of our individual mind points us to the community of believers it points us and every community of believers to all men sincerely dedicated to the understanding of the revelation of the one universal truth of god. As in the face of the one and only God every one of us is different, an individual with his individual shortcomings and qualities, thus in the face of god also human communities are different. They are different because difference among us is the mark of our imperfection and of our difference from god.

There are various kinds and various steps in the divine revelation of its universal truth. Various men and various communities of men grasped and grasp various aspects of god’s eternal truth. Thus our limits as human beings point

us to an exchange with others and the humbleness to which us the encounter with god leads opens us to the dialogue with the other, as individuals and as communities.

As we are – despite an adherence to a specific group and the guidance we receive from this adherence – ultimately alone in our relationship with god the dialogue between different religions cannot lead to a merger of religions in which differences disappear and a religion of the smallest common denominator emerges: every individual must find his own way to god, every religion can only have its own way to god. Thus the benefit we draw from each other in talking to each other about our differences and about our common beliefs will not eliminate the differences but will make our differences and our common elements transparent for us. Differences and common elements are both the marks of our human limitations; talking about them will make us more aware of them. Making them thus transparent means allowing them to become transparent for the light of god. In their transparency they are embedded in the shroud of the light of god; in this light god reveals his presence among us and allows us to be different and yet united in us being pointed in our differences towards him as the shining center that enlightens our paths towards him. In this way the dialogue between religions leads us not only towards peaceful cohabitation in the socio-political sphere it unites us in a much deeper sense and brings us closer to our wholeness and redemption in god.

  1. The interfaith dialogue and atheism

As I have stated above in today’s society in many countries a large number of non- religious people exist. This group is actually rather incoherent, it comprises people who explicitly profess to be atheist, some who profess to be sceptic, more and more who somehow profess to adhere more or less closely to a religion but do not practice this religion at all, some who say they do believe in a higher power but cannot identify with any specific religion. Now western states already for a long time define themselves as secular, I.e. religiously neutral, or Laizist, I.e. areligious. Although this is a kind of willful self deception as regards the so called west: whatever people say western states still heavily privilege Christianity and the Christian churches have a more or less powerful influence on politics whereas other religions are far from being equal, and actually count for nothing.

Actually this has surfaced in the wake of European societies becoming more and more multicultural and multi religious, and thus an unholy alliance formed itself between atheists, non practicing Christians and all those who believe – whatever their attitude towards religion – in the superiority of western culture, and this alliance, reaching from radical atheists to fundamentalist Christians, stresses secularism as a major achievement of western society and uses this fake concept as a tool to ward off non Christian religions. Secularism – unreflected as it is- has long taken the place of the new pseudo-religion, either replacing or propping up traditional Christian religion.

Now, these ‘secularists’ are a driving force in western society and they more or less decidedly refuse a meaningful dialogue with non Christian religions, namely Islam, and with other cultures as well; with a seemingly teeth-less Christianity, which of course for good reasons does not challenge our pseudo secularism openly, they can coexist. As this alliance uses well sounding phrases in a society which does not reflect on its real state a bunch of devious hypocrites or fanatics carries a great number of people with them and thus creates great damage in western society, even worldwide.

One reason why this tendency has such an enormous success is the growing gap between truly religious people and those who have lost their religion and either define themselves as outright atheist or don’t practice any religion any longer. They conceive religion ever more as a threat to their areligious way of life.

Obviously to talk to malevolent fanatics is useless but these are rather few; the large number of people without religion urgently need to be involved in a dialogue with religions if we want a society and a world of peaceful cohabitation despite all differences as regards world views.

Atheism or rather more general non-adherence to any religion is a phenomenon of the modern world which has to be addressed by religious people. It’s rather the question: will areligious people be interested in a dialogue with religion? Is a meaningful dialogue as that between different religions possible between religious and non-religious people?

Meaningful dialogue is, as I said above, only possible if there is a common desire, a common feeling that such a dialogue is necessary, desirable or fruitful.

I have spoken above about the common denominator of religion being that which is beyond the human sphere. How can a person who denies that there is anything beyond the human sphere be interested in talking about such a sphere?

In order to answer this question let me go one step back. A basic characteristic of human existence is that human beings have an explicit relationship with their existence. Personhood means that a being somehow defines itself versus his surroundings; it has an explicit interest in himself. Thus inevitably man sees his existence, his life as a whole in the context of what he conceives as the whole of what surrounds him. The basic question of his existence is how the whole surrounding him encounters him and how he encounters the latter. In this relationship there is inevitably a perspective on the whole of this existence; namely as human existence has limits, it is a whole, already in so far as it is not unlimited. Thus this basic question is the question of how man wants to handle his existence as a whole versus the universal whole. This is the question of the sense, the scope of human existence. Nobody can escape this question.

The question of the whole eo ipso transcends the limited human existence. In this question man defines himself as a limited whole in a larger whole. This question is at the basis of the question of that what is beyond the purely human. Originally this question is a quest for the sense of human existence as a whole. This question is – in the words of a theistic religion – the question of god. God is the attempt to find the universal sense of human existence. Thus god is an eternal quest, a way towards finding this sense, a way towards finding one’s existence contained and redeemed in a whole that comprises and transcends human existence.

No one can escape this question, least so the atheist. The atheist either answers this question by negating a sense or by negating that the question of the sense can be answered in a sensible way. But in so far as god is precisely this question the atheist in giving his answer to this question experiences god, he experiences god in the lack of an answer to his quest, he experiences god as that which he cannot find, that which seems to be hidden, which hides itself: he experiences god in his absence. Thus a common ground exists on which both the religious and the areligious person can meet, and not only can meet but meet inevitably. The explicit negation of god is an answer to the same question as the belief in god.

  1. Man’s way towards god and god’s way towards man

In order to find this common ground between believers and non believers it’s necessary for both to understand that god is as much a question as he is an answer. God speaks to the hearts of men in the way man experiences his life in various manners. Most eminently he speaks to man in his suffering. Suffering is an inevitable part of human life: we experience the suffering of others and we experience our own suffering. And at least the latter we cannot avoid. Suffering is the most eminent mark of our imperfection. In suffering we inevitably ask the question why, because suffering is that which should not exist, that whose existence we reject and cannot understand or accept. In suffering we experience that which has no reason, that whose existence we cannot comprehend. In this experience we experience in the most eminent way god, and we experience him interfering in our lives. In suffering we feel most far from god. We feel alone and deserted, we feel that all makes no sense. We feel the absence of a healing, redeeming presence of the whole. But in this absence we also feel most acutely the presence of the healing force of the whole as a whole that makes our lives whole and full of sense, we feel this presence as that which we feel should be there.

Thus in his absence god is most close to us. He leads us into the abyss of suffering in order to make us feel his presence most acutely. In the abyss of suffering we feel deserted by every human force, the abyss of suffering makes us stand alone face to face with god. This loneliness is the most acute experience of god; it’s up to him whether he makes us hear his voice in this desert so that we respond to it in prayer or he pushes us into the desperation of complete loneliness: in our suffering we all, believer and non believer, again and again experience god as a question, as our question why, and again and again it’s up to him whether he lets us hear his answer and leads us towards answering his call.

God is always near to us precisely when he is most far, just as we experience him also as the most far, the most exalted above us if we come close to him in trying to communicate with him, with his revelation in his word. To be always near and far at the same time is the very essence of god’s incomprehensibility and infinite grandeur. In being near by being far and being far in being near every human being is pointed towards the experience of god, believer and non believer alike. And this unites us all in the face of god; and how every one of us in every single moment of his life deals with his loneliness in the face of god, this  is not up to us, it is up to him.

 



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