My post yesterday was a kind of theological prelude to the main act, an act which continually re-forms the sort of tentative position I began to outline there. The main act in the dramatic interplay of the glorious diversity of religions is dialogue and I want to offer only a very few preliminary words about this today. Let me say first of all that I do not regard dialogue as some kind of hobby activity for people who are into religion, but a fundamental matter of human flourishing and peacemaking. Dialogue is a path of conversion, in that it seeks to move me from one place to another in my understanding of myself and my own faith, of my neighbours and their faith and, ultimately, of God himself. Any act of dialogue that is not begun with the expectation of one’s own conversion is bound to be insufficient.
Dialogue is encounter with the other at a profound level which leads to new understanding. It is a kind of ‘passing over’ into the life of the other in order to see things from a new standpoint. As that great pioneer of Christian-Muslim dialogue, Louis Massignon, put it:
To understand something is not to annex it, it is to transfer it by decentring oneself to the heart of the other.
I guess this is what it means to love one’s neighbour ‘as oneself’ or, ‘as one who is like you’ – another subject, not an object, whether of fascination or revulsion. On one level, it is impossible fully to inhabit the mindset, worldview and culture of another person without having lived the life they have lived and without inheriting the patterns of thought and metaphors by which every one of us sees the world, consciously or not. So alongside the vital work of deep listening, there are other means of ‘decentring oneself’ in order to draw closer to the heart of the other. Religions involve much, much more than just ideas, so some level of engagement in the patterns of religious life and prayer of the other is also vital to dialogue. More than that, some level of love for these patterns is also essential. Here I don’t mean something sentimental or idealised, but committed and patient, affective and intellectual, respectful and also passionate. If we are to love our neighbours, we must also love the lives they lead.
Such holistic dialogue seems ever more vital in a world that is under constant threat of fragmentation into self-interested and homogeneous entities. Mostly, I think the common experience of facing a threatening pandemic has brought out the best in us – active compassion and genuine sorrow at the suffering of others – but we do need to heed the counter-current of xenophobia and ‘my nation first’ thinking that has also raised its head. Perhaps this current global situation underlines more urgently than ever the need for mutual understanding, for without it, we are left with only the limited resources of our own perspective to draw on. Perhaps our neighbours of other faiths and worldviews have insights into this situation that we could not have found from our own standpoint, insights into the nature of disease and wellbeing, insights into the balance between communal and individual lives, insights into the presence of God in such a challenging situation. So far, I have seen many impressive and thoughtful reflections on the pandemic from within my own tradition but perhaps its time to widen my perspective. We need each other in this time.