"A Spiritual Vision for the Dialogue of Religions"


Religion is about relationships. Every religion tries to enable the human person to relate to the divine and to the rest of creation in a harmonious and mutually enriching fashion. It is from this perspective that the importance of the relationship between religions need to be appreciated. The alienation between religions, or a relationship of mutual hostility, even apathy, implies a contradiction of the very idea of religion. Physicians need to heal themselves first. We need to work earnestly towards bringing about a wholesome relationship of constructive cooperation among religions.

In this regard, we need to reckon a long period of inter-religious alienation among world religions. Even a casual sense of history will enable us to see that there is nothing religious about this unfortunate state of affairs. Several factors have contributed both to its genesis and to its perpetuation. Some of them were accidents of history and geography. Some of them were ideological as in the case of western triumphalism and religious imperialism. The rise of secular materialism has been yet another factor. Setting the cat of competition among the pigeons of religions served the need to deflect attention from the onset of this unspiritual worldview. Complicating all these was western ontology that insisted on defining everything else on its own terms. It insisted, besides, on casting everything in terms of a neat opposition in which one part of reality was white and the other black. [This pattern is very much in evidence in the US adventure in Afghanistan] This aggravated the animosity to the unfamiliar and the alien. More than in any other field of knowledge, reductive western ontology resulted in spreading deep-seated anxiety and hostility towards eastern religions. In this the western world, for some strange reason, overlooked the fact that all religious were of eastern origin and that the only religion (or quasi-religion) crafted in the west was materialism. That being the case, it was inevitable that the spirit of distrust directed against eastern religions spread, eventually, to Christianity also. Hence the emergence of the Post-Christian era in the history of the west.

Religion is a domain of power. One aspect of the power of religion is its penchant for entering into combinations with the other forces in the given field, the forces in the political, economic and cultural domains of its milieu. Each time this kind of combination takes place it modifies the genius of the given religion. It is for this reason that no religion continues to exist in history in its pristine purity, making it necessary for religions to undergo periodic renewal, or succumb to the forces of degeneration and gradual demise. In their historical existence, all religions have entered into combinations, in varying ways and degrees, with political forces. The spirit of triumphalism in the religion founded after Jesus Christ, who was as meek as the lamb, is a hybrid of the biblical faith and western colonial imperialism. From this outlook, there was hardly any chance for any inter-faith dialogue. Triumphalism presuppose an arrogant unwillingness to know and value the other. It conjures up the spurious duty to conquer and assimilate other faiths. This spirit is still at large in the sphere of religion and we should do all we can to exorcise ourselves of this Unholy Spirit.

From the inter-faith perspective, colonialism is a curious phenomenon. It was colonialism, as we have seen, that unleashed the imperialistic impulse into the encounter between religions. Yet the desire to understand religions objectively was also a by-product of colonialism, as colonialism brought religious communities into contact with each other to an extent that never happened prior to that. The serious study of non-Christian religions began to attain academic acceptance and prestige in European universities from the second half of the 19th Century. The point of interest for us here is the practical truth that cross-cultural and inter-faith encounters must move towards a deeper understanding both of one's own faith and the faiths of other peoples. It is from the inter-faith engagement that we began to understand that the spiritual truth of one's own faith is best understood through the epistemological distance afforded by the inter-religious perspective.

Yet another factor relevant to the inter-faith movement is the rise and fall of nation states. Religions -in the European context, denominations- tended to identify themselves with particular nations states. As a matter of fact, religious or denominational kinship played a decisive role in European nationalism. It is from this very context that the idea of the inferiority and superiority of religions purchased it new legitimacy. Religion was the deepest source of the morale and identity of a people and their subjugation was never complete unless their gods were humiliated and their religions denigrated.

This brief survey would serve to prove that inter-faith relationships were modulated by everything other than religious or spiritual considerations. This continues to be case even to this day. Relationships of mutual hostility between religions are a sure sign of the erosion of the spiritual core of these religions. Unfortunately, we did not have the spiritual discernment or skill to diagnose the religious sickness that this portended!

Here a brief word or two on spirituality is in place. We need to be wary of the widespread tendency to equate religion with spirituality, whereas they are, often, contrary to each other. That is certainly the case during periods of religious decay, as happens to be the case at the present time. Religious communities are crafted on the principle of sameness. They are, hence, marked by homogeneity. The foremost religious sin is heresy, which is, literally, claiming the right to "choose for oneself". This is demonized and eradicated, not so much because God is too anemic to stand it, but because this disturbs the religious values of uniformity and conformity. But, what the religions wish to root out as heresy might well be, from an objective perspective, the spirit of prophecy, the vocation to articulate the costly truth. Jesus of Nazareth was seized of this perennial problem in the theatre of religions. No prophet, he said, was acceptable among his own people. The inter-faith movement needs to be erected on the foundation of spirituality, not of religion, as we have known religion for these many centuries.

Secondly, religion tends to be oriented on the profit and comfort of individuals. "Personal salvation" or the moksha of individuals is the foremost religious goal. Not so, in the case of spirituality. Spirituality is like an ever-expanding ripple. From the individual it spreads and embraces the world around. Spirituality integrates the salvation of the individual with the transformation of the society. That is why values such as love, truth, justice, compassion, and so on are basic to spirituality. Spirituality puts the spotlight on our shared destiny as a species and not on the metaphysical profit or loss that an individual might incur. Contrary to popular belief, spirituality is profoundly this-worldly. But spirituality is this-worldly precisely because it has a true sense of the divine. This-worldliness sans godliness is the genius of materialism. Spirituality is godly materialism, if you like. Quality of life as well the health and wholeness of the whole of creation are basic to spirituality. This need not necessarily be the case with religions. It rarely has been.

This too has a material bearing on the inter-faith movement. Salvation shops can only compete among themselves. Not so in the case of shared spirituality, which shifts the focus from the efficacy of individual salvation to the collective destiny of our species. In the process, the spirit of competition is replaced by the spirit of a shared sense of mission.



In the sphere of religion we must make a clear-cut distinction between the spiritual ferments in which religions originate and the historical accretions they add on in the course of their historical evolution and institutionalization. The crucial process here is that of the mediation, interpretation and management of the religious heritage by a priestly class. The emergence of the priestly class has had a dramatic, often undesirable, impact on the spiritual authenticity of religions. It is like interposing a prism in the path of a ray of light. Religion have suffered refraction on account of its mediation by the priestly class. Illustrations from the Indian context. [say, the caste system, the various instances of contradiction, e.g. the idea of woman and the plight of women in the Indian society, their suffering sanctioned by religion?]

One aspect of the interposition of the clergy between the source of divine light and its experience (which is the core religious experience) by the faithful is the dilution of the universal in the religious core. Every class is driven by its own interests and limitations. And the priestly class is no exception. A class or caste is necessarily territorial. It can never be universal, even with the best of intentions. It is from a territorial mindset that anyone can conclude that God is partial to them and that the Divine can be manipulated and controlled at will through some rituals and priestly mumbo-jumbo. It is from the same perspective that it might appear that God is interested only in the salvation of one group and is happy to have the rest accommodated in the warm hospitality of hell. The same principle is responsible for the canard that the presence of God is confined to a temple, mosque or church and that the rest of the earth is man's free-hold, an idea that has had unfortunate consequences for the quality of social justice obtained under the auspices of religion.

It is, among other things, thanks to the hegemony of the priestly class that religions become antagonistic to each other. Religion degenerated into a sphere of power and control. In this process, the devotion of the people was defined, limited and manipulated so as to tighten priestly control over their perceptions and priorities. Religion became the foremost tool for dividing people rather than enabling them to relate to each other in love. The privilege of sharing experience was limited only to the subscribing or professing members. Near-total discontinuity was imposed upon the people between their religion and the religion of their neighbours. I have often wondered why Jesus said that the prostitutes would enter the Kingdom before the Pharisees and Sadducees. Could it be that they have greater freedom in meeting people and are richer through their shared experiences? The religious frigidity of the priestly class was anathema to Jesus, who stood for a robust celebration of life. Somehow, for a person like me it is difficult to visualize Jesus of Nazareth inside a Church, except perhaps in the form of an idol set up for cosmetic considerations.

The point I am making is that if "religious experience" is to comprise the matrix of our inter-faith encounters, we need to come to some understanding as to what may constitute this religious experience. As long as the people continue to keep their religious rationality at the door-step of their priestly manipulators, there is hardly any room for optimism in this regard. In order to facilitate some preliminary thinking on this subject I propose the following features as mere markers of the religious experience.

1.     There is a need to engage the scriptures, if necessary, from a perspective of what the American sociologist, Peter Berger, calls the "heretical imperative". Heretical imperative implies the duty to be heretical in the face of established and deeply-entrenched dogmas that no longer square up with the truth of human experience. Our scriptures are mixed bags. They contain much that is valuable and inspiring. But this great treasure is mixed up with suggestions and insinuations that are not very spiritual. The idea of holy war that in some contexts sanctions the total elimination of race is a case in point.

2.     The idea that God resides on a particular mountain and nowhere else and that

those who cannot go there for worship must carry some soil from there for purposes of worship is yet another. The notion the water of a river is sacred and it can wash away your sin or guarantee painless delivery for women is yet another. The list is infinite. Scriptures that denigrate the value of a human being on account of his faith or caste identity must be rejected. So also any false notion that the injustice meekly suffered in this world would be compensated in a hypothetical heaven must be rejected. The idea of a partial God must be laughed our of court.

2. Second, the social isolation of religious communities must end. Sadly, the social distance between religious communities has only increased with the passage of time and with the shrinking of the global village. This is an unnatural state, promoted on purpose by vested interests. There is a need to reverse this trend and to multiply opportunities for promoting shared experiences.

3. Third, the escapist trends promoted by the priestly class must be curtailed. Barring rare exceptions, priests in all religious traditions live in a state of isolation from social issues. The religious wares they showcase remain the same, irrespective of what happens in the world around them.

4. The ascendancy of reason and the restoration of the balance between reason and faith. As long as faith is entrapped in a cultic or magical frame of reference, there is little chance of any improvement in the inter-faith scenario. Secrecy and exclusivity are basic to anything cultic.

5. A spirituality of engagement needs to be enunciated. [To be developed further in Lecture II]











Introduction :

The domain or religion is shaped by the dynamic of conformity. Religion believes in the law of change. But it is change in a limited and regulated sense of the term. Religions seek to coerce the world around to conform to its norms and notions. What refuses to cooperate with this process tends to be stigmatized and excluded.

Religion is driven by the pro-status quo instinct. The main reason for this the ascendancy of a class in the religious establishment. As a rule, those who enjoy the privileges and benefits of a system are averse to changing it. Also, the elite in every context enjoys the intellectual and ideological tools by which to manipulate the perceptions and apprehensions of the masses. They succeed in spreading anxiety in the masses vis--vis any reform in respect of religion. This explains why religious reform is easily the riskiest vocation that a person can undertake.

That is not the case with spirituality. Spirituality also seeks to bring about change. But that change is not the process of fitting everything into a fixed framework. It is a change from what is to what might well be; a change from the real to the ideal. Spirituality is a continual endeavour to bring out the best potential latent in every person or society.

It is on account of its tendency to foster a spirit of escapism that religion stands in danger of becoming the opium of the masses. Now, opium is deceptive nourishment. While true nourishment seeks to enable, opium disables its consumers from engaging the world and its realities. The tragedy of escapist religiosity is that it forestalls the spiritual growth of the people. Spirituality, in a sense, is stamina. It takes a lot of spiritual stamina to engage the world. The true purpose of religion is to enhance people's spiritual stamina to impact the world around them.

At the core of the spirituality of engagement is the concern to bridge the gulf between religious knowledge and social action. It is not enough that we know. The spiritual task is to bridge the gulf between knowledge and action. This bride is compassion. Compassion is the ability to love others in deeds not less than in words. Love is dynamic. It seeks to respond in a state of empathy. Conventional religiosity preaches love but denies it in action. It must be deemed axiomatic that our love for the world will grow and deepen only when we engage it. That is true even of parental love. Parents love their children and children reciprocate their love only because they engage each other in active love.

Now, the world around us may be addressed from two different paradigms. The entrepreneur, not less than the man of God, address the world around him. Often times a thief is more sensitive to and aware of the surrounding world than the religious saint. It is not enough to address the world. The crucial thing is why we want to do so and to what effect. While unspiritual religiosity -much like commercial enterprise- address the world from the perspective of "taking" the spirituality of engagement responds to the world around with a spirit of "giving". God is the eternal Giver. The spiritual task is to for ourselves to become the conduit for the generosity of God. Generosity is not mere charity, charity is giving in a superfluous way. It is not only material resources that God gives. It is a comprehensive framework for total human well-being in a spiritually wholesome fashion. Applied spirituality or the spirituality of engagement cannot develop unless this shift from the self to the other, on account of being founded in God, is welcomed and internalized.

The power of spirituality derives from its connectivity, as in the case of the flow of electricity as well. For power to flow the two terminals must be connected. Applied spirituality connects God who is the positive terminal of the Universe with the whole of creation which is the negative terminal. Whenever religious enlightenment took place, this pattern became evident. In the absence of the true manifestation of the power of God, this world has been filled with the demonstration of the power of man. That is true also of the domain of religion. In the gigantic structures and massive establishments we have built up in the name of religion, there is hardly any space for the revelation of the glory of God. God is an Outsider, the Excluded One, vis--vis our edifices of religiosity.

The first and foremost requirement to turn religion into an invitation to address the world around is to invite God to come into our spirituality. But God will not do so on our terms and fit into our narrow frameworks. Our religiosity is too narrow for God whose presence fills the Cosmos. Our pettiness is too mean for the majesty of God's sovereign sanctity. The coming in of God will, hence, be experienced as an explosion of heresy. We must have the spiritual robustness to stand this religious trauma.

Spirituality is a sphere of ever-expanding responsibility. That is why it is also a medium of mankind's ongoing evolution. In respect of religion it may be adequate to mind one's own welfare, but that is never the case with spirituality. Spirituality is a vision that insists that one's welfare is coterminous with the welfare of the society. That is because spirituality presupposes a holistic vision in which all the parts dwell organically within the whole and the whole indwells the parts. One part cannot thrive at the expense of the other.

Engagement is the dynamic of liberation and empowerment. The tragedy with the prevailing popular idea of religion is that its goal is reduced to having rather than being. Getting some blessings or enjoying some privileges is a sufficient goal in the "having" mode of religiosity. But in the "being" mode of spirituality, the irreducible goal is the full unfolding of the potential and scope of our humanity. It is the empowerment to be fully human.

Spirituality liberates us from our religious ghettoes. It dismantles barriers and enables inter-religious partnerships. This is basic to the liberation that spirituality affords.



The need for religions to shift from a relationship of competition to one of cooperation is being increasingly realized the world over. This is in part due to the fact that religions have failed to impact the state of affairs in the world constructively due to their mutual alienation and suspicion. While the custodians of religions busy themselves with their petty quarrels the destiny of our species is being hijacked by the forces of economics and politics in the world. Our mutual quarrels have served only to marginalize religions from the text of human welfare.

When religions thus insulate themselves from the lived realities of the world, they tend to develop a purely other-worldly outlook that shuts its eyes on the burning issues of the times. The basic problem here is the promotion of individual and group selfishness. The practice of religion then gets driven by selfish ends. Religious rituals and prescriptions are resorted to, in order to secure the maximum advantage for oneself, even to manipulate the will of God to one's own benefit. It is this logic that blossoms in due course, under certain political and economic conditions, into communalism and sectarian violence.

The time has come for us to realize that more than enough has been done to prevent religions from meeting and working out effective partnerships. We have evolved, over the years, frameworks of exclusion. The religiosity we have developed, presumably in the name of God -our respective gods, each one of them being strangely so universal!- is the religiosity of rejection and exclusion. The poverty of this arrangement did not matter to us only because the religious goals and priorities we embraced could be managed within these narrow frameworks. It is unlikely, hence, that a framework that facilitates a meaningful meeting of religions will evolve unless we are also keen to address goals and tasks that demand the resources of such an enlarged spiritual perspective. This is our focus in the present lecture.

The Idea of Applied Spirituality

This concept can only seem rather strange from the perspective of conventional religiosity. All religions have evolved, in one way or another, religious or doctrinal legitimizations for disowning their responsibilities to the world around. Some of the instruments in this respect are:

(a) The idea of ritualistic pollution. In several religious traditions, whatever is 'of the world' is treated as a source of spiritual pollution. Even contact with those outside of one's religious fold is coloured in this fashion. The idea of ritualistic pollution has been one of the most powerful instruments of inter-faith and inter-caste alienation.

(b) Fatalism. The fatalistic worldview discourages any initiative for improvement. The idea of a breakthrough seems even impious. This forestalls the possibility of forming inter-faith partnerships to address social evils. [cf. the attitude to poverty and human suffering from a fatalistic standpoint].

(c) The doctrine of sin and punishment. This doctrine allows a convincing escape route from social action. Avoidable suffering can be explained as the result of overt or covert sin for which it is just punishment. A sense of righteous indignation is essential for a committed partnership to form so as to address the issue effectively. So long as religion continues to be used as a means for legitimizing human suffering and the organized exploitations in society, the idea of interfaith dialogue will remain suspect.

(d) The doctrine of reward after death. Even when it is fully granted that there is a life after death, irrespective of colour or shape that it might assume, it should in no way become an excuse for diluting the right of every human being to enjoy quality of life and find the full development of her potential as a person here and now. The extent to which the priestly class exploits our ignorance of and anxiety about life after death is wholly condemnable. Often it seems that the idea of life after death is used as the opium to dull the pains of the life before death.

(e) Exclusive emphasis on personal salvation. As long as religions continue to operate on the paradigm only of personal salvation, the scope for inter-faith dialogue will remain slender. Corollary to the doctrine of personal salvation is the idea of exclusivity. All claims of religious exclusiveness hinge on the notion of personal salvation. This is the most formidable hurdle in the path of inter-faith cooperation and dialogue.

These are the stumbling-blocks along the path of developing a shared idea of applied spirituality.

The thrust in applied spirituality should be:

(a) A spiritual idea of God. The insult to God immanent in a communal or sectarian idea of God needs to be fully exposed. Rather than see the truth of the Divine as the invitation for personal and collective liberation and universal harmony, religious traditions caricature God as a partisan player in the market of petty-minded religiosity. All sectarian religions bear false witness to God. Their god is too small to reflect the spiritual splendour of the Universal God of all-embracing love. If God is recognized as the source of the human family as a whole, the petty quarrels between religions will at once look insufferably irreligious.

(b) The ecumenical vision: a shift from exclusion to inclusion. [cf. vasudhaiva kutumbakam]. From the beginning of man's religious existence in history, he has been sensitive to the distortion that divisive religiosity brings about to his inward integrity. All spiritually directed reform movements have militated against the walls and barriers of religions. The ecumenical vision is a mandate to see the unity of our species underlying its diversity and variety. It is based on the truth that creation itself is a harmony of the One and the many, of unity in diversity. While religious orthodoxy tends to be allergic to the plurality of religions, spiritual robustness revels in it and seeks to unveil the unity that underlies this richness and variety.

(c) An incarnate spirituality, as distinct from disembodied piety that limits itself to the practice of rituals and traditions aimed only at personal salvation or moksha. The true nature of God, the authentic dynamic of spirituality as well as the depth of scriptures, all these become accessible to us, if at all, only in a state of dynamic engagement with the realities of the world. Religions are not an anthology of magic formulae but manuals on life itself. Life does not lend itself to a dichotomy between the internal and the external. The reconciliation between the two and a dynamic traffic between the two are basic to the logic of life. When this stops, the logic of spiritual death takes over and religions that are, de facto, dead cannot enter into dialogues.

(d) A radical idea of worship. Not just as a matter of going to have a date with God but also as an experience of equipping oneself to make the will of God (or godly values, such as justice, truth, compassion) prevail in the world. The flow towards the temple or church must be complemented by the flow from the temple into the society to impact and transform societies.

(e) A thorough revision of our self images and the images we entertain of each other. A shift from seeing only ill in other religions to claiming the freedom to see what is good and beautiful in them. Basic to spiritual epistemology is the fact that others can be known truthfully only in love. This means knowledge through engagement. So far religions have chosen to know each other from a distance. Knowing from distance yields, at best, superficial knowledge. Distance distorts knowledge. To know in love is to know at close quarters, and without any prejudice. It is to know positively, rather than negatively. As long the mindset of negativity is not removed from inter-faith perceptions, the cause of dialogue will remain crippled.

(f) Above all, a shift from profession and confession to practice. Paying lip-service to spiritual values will not do. The emphasis must be on realizing them in the given social, political, economic and cultural context. Spirituality is a paradigm of engagement; and engagement is the dynamic of transformation.

Applied spirituality must be seen, essentially, as a means for liberating religions from the caves of exclusion to which they have consigned themselves. It is unlikely that each religion remains cocooned in its chosen shell, refuses to move out, and yet either develop applied spirituality or a culture of cooperation. It is by disowning spirituality that religions ghettoized themselves. It is by developing spirituality that they can liberate themselves. All through the history of religions, those who saw the light of the Spirit felt urged to come out their religious caves into the broad sunlight of shared spirituality. It is a pity, though, that most people still remain, in a religious sense, mere cave men.

The basic dynamic of applied spirituality is the integration of the sanctuary and the secular society. What connects the two is the river of love. We must go to our places of worship so that our hearts may be filled with God's love for the world. If and when that happens, we shall return to the society and incarnate that love through concrete actions. Applied spirituality as a new theological concept will be yet another eye-wash.

When we return to the society and begin to engage its complex and demanding problems, we begin to see the limitations of the spurious religiosity that we have absolutized all the while. Till that happens we shall go mistaking the shell for the kernel of religion. It is our virtual imprisonment in the places of worship that has prevented us from developing our spiritual heritage or claiming our freedom to be effective spiritual agents in the given context.

Why should religions meet? Their meeting as a mere religious fad or as a concession to this age of multiplying conferences is a luxury we must readily forego. Religions must meet first of all for their self-liberation. Second, there must be an emphasis on their revitalization as agents of social liberation and transformation. The focus here must be relentlessly on social justice. The competitive and isolationist models of religion have failed to bear witness to Gods passion for justice in this world. Third, religions must meet and help each other in fulfilling their historical destiny as instruments for peace and human welfare. The ultimate spiritual goal is not to dot the landscape with places of worship, but to turn the whole earth into one grand temple of God. This may call for the withering away of all competitive places of worship. It is when religions meet each other in a spirit of truth and mutual trust that the architecture of the true temple begins to be visible.

So there is a dialogic relationship between applied spirituality and the meeting of religions. For religions to meet, there must be a preliminary shift from conventional religiosity to applied spirituality. But, the more religions meet and understand each other and their shared destiny, the more they will themselves shift from religiosity to applied spirituality. Applied spirituality denotes a radical shift from doctrines and dogmas to the solidarity of a shared mission, centred on God and committed to the health and wholeness of the whole of creation.

In the end, religions will meet each other only if there is a genuine and passionate desire to meet with the God of love who loves the whole of creation without any partiality. Applied spirituality is born out of the spiritual insight that the love for God must express itself through the love of our fellow human beings. A God who loves the world cannot live imprisoned in temples and churches, and isolated from the issues that afflict His children anywhere in the world. It stands on the dynamic of love that integrates, rather tan alienates. The framework for the meeting of religions must be the celebration of God's love for all, which is the quintessence of spirituality.



From our inter-faith journey so far at least two truths have emerged. First, to participate sincerely in dialogue, religions will have to reform themselves. Second, dialogue will have to be accepted and undertaken as a pilgrimage to the depth of spirituality. And both need to be seen as essential to a fuller appropriation of the spiritual heritage of our species.

The good thing is that the time is more propitious for breaking out of our traditional moulds now than it was even a decade ago. The era of nation states and the exclusive truth-claims of religions is now virtually over. A visible melting of familiar boundaries is taking place. This is the time to set sail and explore undiscovered territories.

At the same time, the growing bewilderment in the human predicament now demands the enunciation of a spirituality of engagement, rather than a religiosity of escapism. The old religious formulas will no longer do. The youth seem disillusioned. The old seem uninspired. Religious authority is waning fast, despite the mushrooming of god-men and religious cults. These are the twilight phenomena that signal the sunset of religious orthodoxy. In the fields of economics, trade, and industry a new age of trans-national cooperation has dawned already. Unprecedented partnerships (as in the case of US and Russia in the war on terror) are emerging in the field of diplomacy and inter-national relationships. Religions alone today go on as though nothing is happening. This is both comic and suicidal.

For religions to forge multi-religious cooperation and engage the world around, it is necessary to overcome their traditional allergy to diversity and differences. There is no way the world can be engaged standing on the premise of sameness; for the world is a theatre of plurality and diversity. As a matter of fact, the true mark of the robustness of a religion is its ability to negotiate and engage differences creatively. Religions that refuse to do so can only imprison themselves in their hideouts.

Religions and the horizon of change

As a rule, religions are closed to change. But they do change, nonetheless. Religions tend the accept only the bare minimum change, as forced by the imperious demands of the times. This needs to be remembered, lest we become complacent about what it takes to induced religions to change. Religions will change not because there is a need to change, but only because they have to. The change desirable for interfaith dialogue in the sphere of religions have two main frontiers. (a) the changes in respect of themselves, i.e., the religious change of religions and (b) the changes vis--vis the world, including the presence of other religions.

Among the religious changes that we desire in religions are:

(a) The shift from the surface to the depth. Even as religion is institutionalized, it tends to shift increasingly from its deep spiritual core to the surface of its institutional elaboration. The letter of the law supersedes the spirit of it. The framework of religion becomes more important than the spiritual work itself. The power of the religious authority eclipses the authority of God. From such a state the religious constituency relates to the world outside mainly in terms of deriving the maximum advantages therefrom, and not with a spiritual sense of mission. On the surface it is the love of power that dominates. And power breeds alienation and suspicion. It curtails the freedom to relate freely.

(b) The keepers and preachers of religions are used to speaking than listening. As a matter of fact, the more they wish to be heard, the less willing they become to listen. This is a mindset that either rules out dialogue or makes a mockery of it as and when it does take place. Religion must be a training ground in the art of listening. For that we must listen to God, first. It is by listening to God that we learn to listen at al. The proof that we are lettered in the art of listening is that we are willing to listen to each other. On the contrary, the ability to listen decreases proportionately as a person climbs the ladder of power, especially of religious power. This is a major stumbling-block in the path of dialogue. The mark of true listening is that we listen even while speaking.

(c) A third area of change is that religions must become, once again, movements and cease to be monuments. It does not have to be argued that monuments cannot dialogue with each other. They neither listen nor speak. They exist for themselves. It is this monument model of religion that is in vogue today, whereas every religion began as a ferment of the Spirit. In place of their rigidity in the surface and stone-heartedness in the inside, religions must dare to become brittle and vulnerable in order to embrace each other. The motive of assimilating and eradicating other religions derives from a monument model of religion and is a sacrilege from the movement model of it.

(d) Religions need to be demystified and made rational and accountable. Today the boundary between religion and magic is barely visible, especially at the level of popular religion. The religious establishment must be made to shed much of its ritualistic and cultic baggage and adorned with the beauty of simplicity. The life and teachings of all great spiritual geniuses (like Moses, Buddha, Mahavir, Jesus, Prophet Mohammad, Nanak, etc.) are marked by extreme simplicity. The religious establishment, in contrast, revels in obscurity and opaqueness.

II. Changes in respect of the attitude to the world outside.

(a) Religious must recognize each other as good neighbours with whom it is good manners to be in conversation. Today we talk to each other as though we are undertaking some kind of daring enterprise! It should become as natural and open as a coffee house conversation, the like of which was seen in the famous Coffee Houses of London in the 18th and 19th Centuries.

(b) We must recognize the whole world as the true temple of God. The ludicrous practice of accommodating the Omnipresent God in the temples of our making must not rob us of the saving truth that even the universe cannot contain the Being of God. At the root of religious sectarianism is the idiotic notion that, insofar as God dwells in our temples and churches, he is under our custody. We belong to our God, no one else can. God is ours. He is a jealous God who will be upset if we have anything to do with those who are not His favourites. Today we must dare and speak the truth that God, who loves the whole world, is upset because we do not talk to each other, much the same way a father will be upset if his children do not talk to each other.

(c) They must develop the specific spiritual resources with which to reach out to and engage a world full of diversity and challenges. In this respect we are in the kindergarten of spirituality. All the religious baggage we have developed over the centuries belong to a different paradigm: the paradigm of divisive religiosity. As a result, even today, when it comes to engaging and encountering the unfamiliar and the diverse, each one of us is out of our depths. Inter-faith dialogue needs a new spiritual vision as well as unprecedented spiritual stamina.

(d) The people must be liberated from all exploitative forms of religiosity. Every instance of religious legitimacy extended to unjust and inhuman practices must be questioned and discredited.

(e) The abuse of religions for masking or furthering hidden agenda must be discredited. The rise of religious fundamentalism, terrorism related to it, politicization of religion and communalization of politics, scriptural sanction for discriminatory practices all need to be questioned.

It is not enough to recognize the need to reform religions and to set out a blueprint for doing this. It is of great practical importance to identify the agency for doing this. Who can be motivated to reform religions. Certainly not those who benefit from the present state of affairs. In the European context, the sternest challenge to the priestly hegemony came, as Max Weber points out in his Sociology of Religions, from the lay intellectuals. But lay intellectuals merely as a disgruntled lot cannot address this onerous task. There is a need to establish a network of lay intellectuals and social activists who have an inspired sense of mission, to whom the reformation of religions and their spiritual regeneration is of immense consequence. Such a network, that pursues this goal relentlessly, does not exist as of today. When it comes to the challenge of religious reform the statement of pious intentions alone will not do.

In conclusion we may note:

(a) The emerging global scenario, with its post-nation state ethos, offers an unprecedented opportunity to set forth the agenda both of religious reform and of earnest, in-depth inter-religious dialogue. There is, at any rate, an urgent need to evolve the spirituality for the global scenario. The religiosity fashioned in the ambience of the nation state is hardly adequate or relevant to the radically altered situation. Given the enormity of the task at hand, the religions of the world need to work together and harness all their spiritual resources to impacting the emerging global scenario spiritually.

(b) Secondly, there is no alternative to dialogue. Or, the alternative to dialogue is destruction and holocaust. The foremost spiritual task in the global village is to foster a sense of universal kinship among the peoples of the world. Unless the global village is inhabited by a global family, the chances of exploitation, coercion and conflicts can only increase in the new scenario. The nearness of religious blocks will aggravate their mutual hostility unless this is tempered by a deepened sense of spiritual kinship. Religions should not be allowed to infect the emerging world order with the poison of alienation and hostility. The post Sept.11 Afghan scenario needs to be seen as an early warning of the shape of the things to come.

(c) It is not enough to dialogue. Dialogue must be pilgrimage to the depth. It must be a mutual engagement which liberates and transforms the participants. Dialogue as the mere mouthing of shallow religious sentiments serves no purpose. Rather than bypass or dodge areas of difference, they need to be engaged with open minds with a view of deepening mutual trust and understanding.

(d) Finally, dialogue must be seen as a spiritual tool, and not an end in itself. Dialogue for what? When this question is raised, it becomes clear that dialogue cannot any longer remain an esoteric exercise which some privileged people indulge in. It must become an integral part of our way of life. For that two dialogues need to happen concurrently. Our horizontal dialogue with each other must be directed by our vertical dialogue with God. Dialogue must not be a fringe activity, but a shared culture.

Overarching all these, is the need to shift from the dialogue of words to the dialogue of deeds. As long as our inter-faith encounters are confined to the generation of words and our words and sentiments are not incarnated through a shared sense of mission, the breakthrough we dream of cannot even begin to happen. This as much a matter of personal integrity and commitment as it is of theology. The call with which the inter-faith dialogue resounded for long, namely, to shift from orthodoxy to ortho-praxis is valid here. We must integrate correct words with creative deeds, and so unleash the spiritual power that would liberate the people and transform societies. Nothing less than this is acceptable as the goal of the inter-faith movement for the third Millennium.

The concluding note could be autobiographical. Why I believe in dialogue and inter-religious partnerships. Cf. Religions for Social Justice. Some illustrative examples to reveal its power and timeliness.