Journal of Ecumenical Studies - Volume 52, Number 1 (Winter 2017)

Hans Ucko

NOTE: the following is excerpted from the full Introduction

We need to find a way that goes beyond continually starting dialogue over from the beginning, stating only the obvious, and offering a facile summary of religious traditions in their ideal versions only. Interreligious dialogue is no longer only the pioneering work of a few enthusiastic specialists. Already the fact that people of faith have begun to see “the other” not as the a priori negative but as possible co-wanderers is a major breakthrough in the world of religion. Today, interreligious dialogue has also found promoters outside the realm of the religious community. It has become a household word in many walks of society, going beyond people of religion. It has become an issue in the world of politics, economy, and the market. Dialogue has become a concern for politicians because there is in the minds of politicians, economists, and United Nations officials a realization that religion is back from the margins and that it is a reality to reckon with in society and political life.

It goes without saying that we should do whatever we can to prevent religion from being used to fuel conflict, and many of the interreligious dialogue initiatives are focused on peace-building. There are symbolic actions for peace in which religious leaders have made an impact on the local population and have managed to quell unrest. Such initiatives and such interreligious cooperation should definitely continue. However, there is a problem when interreligious dialogue is seen as the panacea against wars and unrest, terrorism, and violence.

Following an interreligious consultation on religious plurality organized by the World Council of Churches in 1999, some of the participants stayed on to debrief together. We are together related to the reality of religious plurality, and we understand that we can be truthful to our religious tradition, faith, heritage, belief, and at the same time be truly open toward the religious diversity in which we live. Getting to know people of other faiths more closely has major implications for my own thinking and reflection and my very self.

Our concern that we not reduce dialogue to be just an instrument led us to a definition of interreligious dialogue as being more a space where we could meet as persons for whom religious tradition mattered but at the same time allowed us to reflect critically about our own tradition in the presence of the other. Thus was born the interreligious group “Thinking Together.” The focus of our religious traditions differs, but we are all challenged as people of different faiths. What matters is the experience we have gained in and through interreligious dialogue, learning that we are in the midst of our diversity, involved, challenged, confronted. Can we learn from each other? Can we think together? Can we speak in a common attempt to some basic issues of belief?

For some years we shared with each other through writing and meetings our reflections on topics that we knew each religious tradition needed to address, issues that had come into focus with the increasing reality of violence in the twenty-first century and the important role that interreligious dialogue could play. When we met, we not only shared reflections but also engaged in some intentional thinking together. Our Thinking Together group embarked first of all on the question of religious plurality. How do we as Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and Jews relate to religious plurality?

A core issue is the exclusive claims of our religious traditions, in whatever form they manifest themselves. Is there another way of dealing with the exclusive claims for uniqueness in the midst of religious plurality? The question of truth needs to be penetrated as to how truth is discovered, received, or constructed by the faith community. One has to see whether language is differently used in intrareligious and interreligious conversation. The question of pluralism needs to interact with how we appreciate plurality.

In a second series of shared reflections, we took our point of departure in the increasingly painful role of religion in violent conflict. We witnessed to each other about violence in our own society and our particular context, and we met to see if we could think together on religion and violence. Self-criticism is of the essence. All religions have at their core a message of life, of peace and justice, of harmony and right relationships in community. Violence, from a religious perspective, is a manifestation of evil, and all religions are struggling with the question of the source of evil and how it can be overcome. There can be no authentic affirmation of peace within any religious tradition without facing up to the challenge of violence in community life.

The Thinking Together group addressed the question of religion and violence, wanting religious communities and their leaders to work toward mutual commitments to withdraw any moral or ethical legitimization of using violent means in response to conflict or in the pursuit of political, economic, cultural, and religious ends. Religious communities and their leaders provide a cover of moral and religious legitimacy for violence. Violence in all its forms—interpersonal, social, or structural—constitutes a break and a denial of community. It reflects the inability or the refusal to live with differences and to acknowledge the otherness of the other. It arises from the urge to shape the other according to one’s own image, to dominate, or to exclude or eliminate the other as a threat to one’s own identity.

In working on the theme of religion and violence, we were together, as well, in asserting that there were ambiguities and contradictions in our religious traditions that gave room for the eruption of violence. We found a “voice” that could express our common concerns, longings, and goals. In our attempt to remedy the shortcomings of religion in relation to religious plurality and sometimes bitter failures in relation to violence, the Thinking Together group realized that one common denominator is how we look upon the other.

Our third series of conversations and thinking together dealt with the other in light of our religious traditions. Whenever we talk or think about religious plurality or religion and violence, we come across “the other” as our eternal Doppelganger throughout time and history. Creating otherness seems to open up the possibility of marginalization, denigration, and exclusion. One of the elements of violence is that of other-making. We need to reread texts that emphasize religious definitions of the other, enabling understandings that affirm the worth and dignity of all beings. Our self-understanding has been reached without much consideration for who the other is or how the other wants to be understood. When we reflect upon what we are or want to be, could we do so in the presence of the other?

The Thinking Together process, focused on Religious Plurality, Religion and Violence, and The Other, allows for an environment that can deal with self-criticism in the midst of religious plurality. It is in dialogue with other faith traditions that religious and theological education will be carried forward, with an awareness of the multifaith and multicultural world in which we live. Interreligious encounter is a necessity in today’s unsettled world, so we need to make sure that we can communicate it. Education is the core of the common agenda to be developed in the interreligious dialogue movement. There is an urgent need to explore the otherness of the other through our own religious tradition and of the other encountered through dialogue. We share our thinking together with a wider audience in the hope that these reflections might enhance the quality of interreligious dialogue and open new avenues for a renewal of our religious traditions and new fellowship among and between people of different faiths.

This collection of Thinking Together has its place not only as a record of that which happened some years ago but also as something that witnesses to a very particular way of addressing together challenges that religious traditions continue to face. In our attempt to be creative and healing communities, we can find sustainability in thinking and acting together.