Interfaith Dialogue

Went to the farewell meeting for Canon Andrew Wingate at the St Philips Centre in Leicester yesterday (he was the first Director and largely responsible for setting the Centre up in the 1980’s).  He is moving to Sussex.  He and Dr Ataullah Siddiqui spoke on Christian-Muslim Relations 2000-2015 – where are we now?  Andrew outlined four principles for dialogue (I think they originated with the World Council of Churches): meeting people; building up understanding and removing distrust; common service to the community; authentic witness.

The impression is sometimes given by those in inter-faith activity that witness (which I take to mean sharing, explaining and giving a reason for what I believe) is not important and may even be damaging in dialogue – the emphasis should be on finding common ground, not identifying difference.  On the other hand, evangelical Christians have often distanced themselves from inter-faith dialogue because they see it as a compromise and a watering down of their convictions.  But I have always believed that witness is indeed central to genuine dialogue, and that dialogue is central to witness.  Dialogue and evangelism have a great deal in common.  Genuine evangelism – sharing the good news – must involve a mutual respect and listening to others who differ from us.  Of course there is a risk involved: if I take time to respect and listen to people of other faiths, maybe they will persuade me that they are right and I am wrong!  In fact dialogue of a serious and honest kind will always change me – one cannot enter into it without learning something, and a vital starting point is the acknowledgement that I may be wrong.  But the Gospel it can surely look after itself.  If the promise of the Spirit of Jesus means anything, it means that in encounter with the world he will be present to lead to the truth.

This is not to say that dialogue is easy, and does not contain genuine dangers.  That is why the building up of trust is vital.  To be fruitful, the process needs to be a mutual one in which both partners are approaching it in the same spirit.  There will be misunderstandings, and language barriers are real.  There is also a huge legacy of culture and history which we all carry, shaping the way any meeting or conversation are understood.  A degree of understanding and maturity about my own faith is important, and the knowledge that I am supported by others in the process, and not simply embarking on a personal adventure in which I may become vulnerable to manipulation.

The concept of dialogue is a fruitful one and has a rich background, in philosophy and politics as well as religion.  As Dr Siddiqui said, dialogue starts with our dialogue with God himself.  He addresses us and we respond, and through a genuine encounter we are led towards the truth.  Any genuine Christian witness takes on the character of dialogue.  We listen as well as – probably more than – we talk.  So dialogue has a lot to teach us about living in a secular as well as an inter-faith society – not to mention relations between different denominations of the Christian Church.  We need to be more courageous and imaginative in seeking out opportunities to engage in it.