Three Tactics for Encouraging Newer Faiths to Participate in Interreligious Dialoguing


Deciding to participate in formal interreligious dialogues may be a source of dilemma for newer religions inexperienced with interfaith communications. Providing reasoned justifications to engage in the enterprise is one method of encouraging participation. The literature was reviewed and three pro-dialogue justificatory tactics were identified and explicated. Namely: (a) an appeal to religious duty, (b) an appeal to religious self-interest, and (c) an appeal to four types of dialoguing intent. That is: (i) to reform and/or protect against the Other, (ii) for the faith, (iii) as a declaration of personal commitment to the faith, and (d) for basic curiosity, discovery and intellectual growth reasons. Further research into grassroots dialogue praxis was recommended.


One of the first questions a newer faith will ask itself when approached by a religious Other to officially dialogue is: ‘Why bother?’ Religions with long dialoguing traditions, experienced practitioners and efficient event organisers traditionally consider a priori that dialogue is good and self-evident. They had made their crucial participation decisions ages ago and have since gotten on with the job. Yet, this obviousness may not be so obvious to fledgling faiths still unsure about the enterprise and their role within it. Whether justified or not, they may harbour suppressed fears of religious contamination, faith betrayal or suspicions of trickery. The official invitation will result in a number of pro and con deliberations within the faith that will eventually determine whether they accept the invitation or not.

During these deliberations, an appeal to rational decision-making will be attempted to justify their acceptance or rejection. Therefore, it is pragmatically astute of the profession to offer rational pro-dialogue justifications that can legitimate their involvement, whether at a religious, organisational or personal level. The literature was reviewed and three major justificatory tactics (with some overlap) were identified. Namely: (a) an appeal to religious duty, (b) an appeal to religious self-interest, and (c) an appeal to four types of dialoguing intent. The following is a detailed explication of each of these propositions.

1.0 An Appeal to Religious Duty

The mere existence of a religion inherently requires that it define itself in contrast to its religious rival. As Bibhuti Singh Yadav (1988) explained:

The Christian, in order to remain self-consciously so, must ask "Who am I?" Self-consciousness necessarily implies its contrary; I cannot be a Christian unless I also ask "Who are you?" It is not that other religions are nonexistent, or false, because I am a Christian. Rather, it is because I am a Christian that there must be other religions (p. 177).

Or as Edward Breuer (1995, p. 281) put it: "In some sense, all group identity entails a degree of delineation between what belongs to one’s own and what is "other"." Logically speaking, if there was no Other then we would all be the same and there would be no need for interreligious dialogue (but still a need for intrafaith communication). But this religious oneness is not a grassroots reality. The world is full of different religions and different divisions and sub-divisions within each of them.

Given the existence of the Other, one can legitimately argue that it is the faith’s religious duty to explore, or at least monitor, the religious Other. Not just for educational, curiosity or political reasons, but for religious duty reasons. Namely, to help define the parameters of their own faith in that very act of examination. How? Because every examination inherently entails comparison, and comparison highlights the commonalities and differences between them that can form the basis for continued exploration. To adopt a religious isolationist policy is anti-enlightenment, anti-productive and it denies the faith the opportunity to significantly grow. Kofi Asare Opoku’s (1992) five African proverbs succinctly attested to the need for religious engagement. Namely:

  • One must come out of one’s house to begin learning.
  • Truth, Wisdom and Knowledge are like a baobab tree; one person’s arms cannot embrace it.
  • If you have not been outside your house, you cannot say that your mother’s soup is the best.
  • However big one eye may be, two eyes are better.
  • Hunt in every forest, for there is good hunting in all of them (p. 18).

All of them make even better sense in the interreligious dialogue context.

This religious duty function is performed by Christians when they spread the good news of the Gospel, as biblically commanded in Matthew 28:19 (KJV): "Go ye therefore, and teach all nations..." Indeed, Gospel spreading has been a paramount activity for Christians since the religion’s inception. This has resulted in international missionary activities in the past (e.g., Jesuit sojourns to the New World), and localised events in the present (e.g., the house-to-house witnessing and proselytising activities of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons). Indeed, it gave rise to the entire theological field of apologetics.

For those religions whose perceived need is primarily apologetic or missionary, then dialogue allows the faith the perfect opportunity to perform part of its witnessing-cum-missionary duty. Albeit, in a somewhat modified form to take account of the fact that proselytising is not true dialogue per se, although partially allowed within it. As Anton Stadler (1982, p. 61) pointed out: "Dialogue adds a constructive and conciliatory note to apologetics while taking away its aggressive aspects." So, why has true dialogue (i.e., balanced, mutually respectful, sincere, exchanges of information) been a relatively modern phenomenon? One important factor is the issue of courage. As Stanley Samartha (1981) observed:

...after meeting so many Christian friends from different backgrounds and neighbours of other faiths from many countries, I am convinced that the obstacle to dialogue is not so much the absence of a theology of dialogue as a lack of courage to meet partners of other faiths and ideological convictions freely and openly in a climate of openness and freedom (p. x).

Regrettably, current interreligious dialogue practice can be initially interpreted by many as a disguised conversion tactic. It supposedly functions as "an ornament, or covers up motivations that often contradict its declared objectives" (Mitri, 1995, p. 23), and so it has to be resisted with as much vigour as the missionary zeal which initially generated it. If the religious duty arguments fail to impress the religious Other, then there is the religious self-interest argument.

2.0 An Appeal to Religious Self-Interest

There is obviously a self-serving element when religions decide to participate in official dialogues, which any realistic, truthful faith can openly acknowledge as a normal fact-of-life. For example, the mere presence of the faith (e.g., Christianity) at a formal interreligious dialogue is highly significant because it publicly and symbolically indicated that Christianity rated high enough to be included in such a public conference. Therefore, a faith that does not appear at such dialogue conferences (e.g., Wicca) may publicly and symbolically indicate the reverse (i.e., insignificance), and it may be marginalised because of it. It is a phenomenon similar to the way that status and snobbery are attached to Hollywood celebrities who get invited to the "in" A-list parties, while those who did not, start to panic about their declining careers. This state of affairs can be unfortunate because many minor faiths (e.g., Black Rastafarians) may not attend simply because of trepidation, feelings of inferiority, lack of experience, or because their small size may have precluded their corporate involvement for financial, time and other resource limitation reasons.

The religious self-interest tactic can be positively utilised by event organisers in two different ways. Firstly, "dominant" faiths can be encouraged to attend dialogues with "lesser" faiths simply to further entrench their majority, and potential mentor status. Secondly, the minority faiths can be encouraged to attend with the attraction of achieving majority status out of proportion to their faith’s numbers that they may not be able to muster in any other practical (or easier) way. Of course, this Machiavellian-looking motivation can be sugar coated in more appropriate religious wrappings for the less squeamish, but this does not invalidate the brute logic of the situation. In addition to status enhancement, intrareligious (bilateral) dialogues have good house-cleaning functions, three in fact. As Harding Meyer (1991) explained:

First, the bilateral approach allows for thorough and detailed study of the specific issues which separate two traditions and, at the same time, makes it possible to bring out more effectively the elements which, despite separation, the traditions have in common. Second, the official nature of the dialogue helps in reaching results which carry at least a certain amount of authority and thereby contributes to the process of receiving the dialogue results in the churches...Third, the emphasis on doctrinal matters results from the conviction that the theological divergences rooted in the historical heritage of the churches are still operative today and must be overcome if an authentic and lasting church fellowship is to be established (p. 281).

In short, dialogue is needed for the formal rectification of past problems and the elimination of future ones.

3.0 An Appeal to Specific Dialoguing Intents

Each faith will have to decide and then justify its dialogue intent, whether publicly, to its leaders, members or interested Others. Basically, these justificatory intents can be divided into four areas, namely: (a) to reform and/or protect against the Other, (b) for the faith, (c) as a declaration of personal commitment to the faith, and (d) for basic curiosity, discovery, and intellectual growth reasons.

3.1 To Reform and/or Protect Against the Other

This argument characterises interreligious dialoguing as the means of subtly changing the Other through knowledge sharing, and/or protecting oneself against the potential machinations of the Other via intimate knowledge of them. Historically speaking, Christianity used dialoguing in this manipulative fashion. Its intent was proclamation and conversion was its goal, which may older faiths still anxiously remember. For example, as Rabbi Leon Klinecki (1991b) painfully confessed:

We Jews must surmount two thousand years of memories that haunt us with images of the past, many of them referred to as legends by our parents, the memory of memories. We must overcome the memory of Constantine, of the church fathers’ contempt for our tradition, of medieval confrontations, of the ghettos. We must overcome the polite antisemitism of the nineteenth century, the silence that surrounded the Holocaust, the ideological indifference for Israel’s struggle for survival. We must overcome also the temptation of self-righteousness! Both Jews and Christians must rid themselves of triumphalism (p. 4).

Nor is this problem limited to Jewish-Christian relations. Juliet Sheen (1994) reported how in 1984 she attended a United Nations Seminar (in Geneva) on encouraging understanding, tolerance and respect for religion and belief when:

A vehemently anti-semitic address by the Saudi Arabian delegate shocked the Seminar delegates. He was quoting from materials about the mediaeval blood libel which he had learned in theology in university and had never questioned...his deluge of century-old hate... (p. 16).

Nowadays, this more aggressive, manipulative aspect of dialoguing has been either eliminated or severely muted. As Paul Ingram (1989, p. 13) now argued: "the task of history of religions should never be the study of non-Christian religious Ways for purposes of gathering information required for Christian missionary activity." Although one appreciates the conciliatory gesture made here, in another sense, it is not a realistic suggestion. Why?

Because one needs to study the religious Other to achieve any sort of true understanding of them as opposed to stereotypic images Other faiths may be (inaccurately) labouring under; and also as a precursor for missionary marketing activities if this was their desired goal. As the evangelical David Hesselgrave (1978, pp. 234-235) pointed out: "Dialogue is essential because the missionary is obliged to engage in it by the very nature of his calling, and because his hearers are lost apart from repenting and believing the gospel which is at the heart of biblical dialogue." Seeking to reform or protect against the religious Other may be the initial lure for some dialogue participants/religions, but eventually this crude, nascent understanding will be destroyed by the mutual transformation effect. That is, the phenomenon of inevitable change through exposure to the Other that results in increased understanding and growth. In essence, one cannot, not change due to prolonged exposure. The challenge is for this unavoidable growth to follow positive trajectories and not reinforce negative prejudices.

3.2 For the Faith

Another pro-dialogue argument is to suggest that interreligious participation advantages the faith. For example, John Saliba (1993, p. 80) argued how Christians should not overlook the fact that dialogue "might be the most effective method of both proclamation and witness" while at the same time "respecting diverse religious options and eschewing high-pressured missionary tactics." This essential thrust can be wrapped in four different (and mildly overlapping) ways. Namely: (a) the desire for conversions (e.g., to save sinners’ souls), (b) for proselytising (e.g., to spread its Gospel via dialoguing as an-end-in-itself, or as a precursor to saving souls), (c) for the faith’s religious, theological, cultural, or social education (i.e., cultural recognisance), or (d) varying combinations of the above. Signs of this faith advancement approach are abundantly evident within the literature.

For example, Monika Hellwig (1982, p. 69) noted that: "it is the very nature of the Christian’s commitment to proclaim the experience of Jesus of Nazareth as Savior and Word of God that propels the Christian community to dialogue with respects for the freedom and the truth of the others." She also noted its non-proselytising educative role, namely: "without intent to proselytize but rather for their own understanding of their own position. Christians are driven to ask Jews what it is that they expect and do not see in the person and followers of Jesus of Nazareth" (Hellwig, 1982, p. 71). The Secretariat for Non-Christians (1990, pp. 63-64) likewise considered that dialogue was useful for the building up of God’s reign, while dialoguers themselves were seen as actively collaborating in God’s plan.

Indeed, the following recommendation from the Lutheran World Federation and the World Council of Churches could be legitimately applied here. Namely: "Partners in dialogue should be aware of the ideological commitments each may hold, and of the wider political and social vision of their respective traditions" (Brockway & Rajashekar, 1987, p. 177). This automatically entails self-reflection and knowing of the Other as a necessary precursory step to proclaiming one’s faith. Indeed, for John Taylor (1980), dialoguing is a form of intrareligious housekeeping:

But I make no apology for that because I believe that, if interfaith dialogue is to become sincere and deep, we have got to expose to one another the ways in which, within our separate households of faith, we wrestle with the questions that other religions put to us (p. 229).

Interestingly, Leonard Swidler (1988, p. 13) argued that: "Christians must seek to listen to God wherever and through whomever God speaks - that is, we must dialogue with persons of other religions to learn what God is saying to us through them." However, the idea that the faith’s God speaks through potential infidel Others will be highly unpalatable to some if not downright heretical to others, but one must logically entertain the possibility. After all, in a similar fashion, the history of Christianity for example is filled with the most unlikely of men whom God selected to do his divine will (e.g., the bully-boy Samson in Judges 13-16 KJV). Fortunately, dialoguing can also be characterised as a personal means of declaring the believer’s commitment to their faith.

3.3 As a Declaration of Personal Commitment to the Faith

Official dialoguers at an interreligious event represent the faith as a corporate identity, and so some "see dialogue primarily as a new and creative relationship within which one can learn about and respect others but also can give authentic witness to one’s own faith" (Ariarajah, 1991, p. 285). Consequently, this authentic witnessing impulse must be formally understood by all delegates from the outset and accommodated accordingly. At the same time, these corporate delegates are also people who privately represent themselves as committed religionists. As David Tracy (1990) confessed:

For my part I cannot enter an inter-religious dialogue as other than a Christian. Even my willingness to enter is, for me, a result of a two-fold commitment: a faith commitment to love of God and neighbour - the heart of Christianity in that commandment and empowerment of the God decisively manifested in Jesus Christ; and an ethical commitment to these honorable (Western) meanings of what genuine dialogue is (from Plato to Gadamer) (p. 95).

So, what does this distinction mean for dialoguing? It means that while representing their faith to the Other for its edification, at the same time, they are also directly expressing their personal religious commitment before the world. After all, what better way to show personal support for your own faith than to officially represent it to religious Others in an official public context? It is akin to representing your country at the Olympic Games, or your home State in an origins football match; and sometimes it can be nearly as exciting and tension-packed.

Acknowledging this reality early on is important because there is a considerable potential danger here. The danger of role-confusion in which the dialoguer is the faith, psychologically (but not organisationally) speaking. After all, "No one can separate the self from communication" (Yoder, Hugenberg & Wallace, 1993, p. 17). If left unchecked, it could be detrimental to the dialogue if every suspect action, comment or behaviour directed against the Other is erroneously perceived as a deliberate slight to the faith itself. For example, Participant-A (e.g., a Christian), and/or the dialogue Chair (e.g., a Hindu) cuts off Participant-B (e.g., a Muslim) for talking too long (i.e., "hogging" the session). This was automatically interpreted by the Muslim as snubbing the Islamic faith. Rather, it should have been interpreted as a bureaucratically enforced compliance to a fairness rule, that is, standard meeting control behaviour. (Even if in the highly unlikely event that it was a snub, it is only to be interpreted as a snub to the delegate personally, not to the religion as a whole). Of course, at first, such indiscretions must be judiciously tolerated during dialogue teething periods, especially by the newer, inexperienced faiths. But if it goes on for too long it must be stopped, the fairness rules restated, and the need for such impartial counselling re-emphasised.

3.4 For Basic Curiosity, Discovery and Intellectual Growth Reasons

As Joseph DeVito (1985, p. 14) pointed out: "One of the major purposes of communication is that of personal discovery. When we communicate with another person, we learn a great deal about ourselves as well as about the other person." In fact, dialoguers can be very curious people who dialogue primarily to explore the Other in a constructive and safe manner. Safe in the sense that exploring the Other via official dialogue is seen as a pro-faith gesture legitimated by their own religious community. On the other hand, if it was done unofficially, privately or both, it may be interpreted by the faith’s religious hierarchy (e.g., Rabbis, Elders, Ministers, Bishops) as a weakening of commitment to their particular faith. Possibly, it was interpreted as an indication of dissatisfaction with their home faith, or worse, a suspicion that this was a precursory indication to the much feared conversion event, and eventual loss of a member. This possibility can be especially worrying when one reads of religious conversions starting off so innocently. For example, Edmond Gruss (1979) reported:

I was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness [JW] for ten years (1940-1950) and was thoroughly convinced of the truth of this system, for I knew nothing else. It was during 1950, just before my graduation from high school, that I was often challenged by some earnest Christian young people and their pastor to accept Christ’s free offer of eternal life. At first I steadfastly rejected these invitations, but later, in the privacy of my own room, I responded to Christ and was "born again" (John 3:3, 5, 7; I John 5:1-13)...Coming free of Watchtower doctrinal error was a gradual process which required several years of earnest prayer and study (p. 1).

The subsequent loss of a previously faithful JW member, the depressing effect upon the rest of his JW congregation, and other potentially serious image management/public relations/damage control problems no doubt alarming many a JW church leader. After all, it could be argued that one should eschew dialoguing because: ‘Why look elsewhere if one is happy at home? And if one is looking elsewhere, then....’

Such curiosity motivations for dialoguing might be driven by one of two basic means, one positive and the other negative, although both contain elements of each other. Namely: (a) a desire for more information about fellow creatures of God who are "asleep" in the faith, or (b) a potentially cynical desire to know-thy-enemy before conquering them. Both stances deserve consideration.

3.4.1 Dialogue Characterised as Deep Information Gathering

As David Tracy (1990, p. 4) confessed: "my own attempts, in the last ten years, to enter into interreligious dialogues have revealed the same kind of hermeneutical need to attend to a real, not a projected, other." Tracy wanted to get to grips with the religious Other that was deep, substantive and went beyond surface appearances. More powerful was Rabbi Leon Klenicki’s (1991b) confession:

I see it every time I leave the synagogue. On Saturday morning after services, while going home, it is there, waiting for me, challenging me. It is the cross of a nearby church. Why does it disturb me?...I am overwhelmed despite my own religious feelings of fellowship and my commitment to an ongoing dialogue with Christians. The cross is there, a challenge to my own belief! I realized that I did not think of the cross as a symbol of Christianity. I was looking at a symbol of a group of people who in the name of their own religion had been unkind, at times evil to my own people. I felt uneasy, ambiguous about the cross (p. 1).

It was such an intense curiosity that it prompted Rabbi Klenicki to devote a considerable amount of his professional working life to interreligious dialogue issues (Klenicki & Wigoder, 1984; Klenicki, 1984; Klenicki, 1991a).

3.4.2 Dialogue Characterised as Knowing-Thy-Enemy Before Conquering Them

This know-thy-enemy cynicism is basically an attempt to beat the religious Other with their own swords, so to speak. This is usually done by culling statements from the Other faith’s leaders, sacred texts and official publications to justify their own (and usually dissenting) faith stances. For example, the Lutheran Church has published an extensive series of booklets designed to teach their members how to respond to the religious Other. Such as: How to Respond to the Cults, ...Transcendental Meditation, ...the Lodge, ...the Latter Day Saints, ...the Occult, ...Jehovah’s Witnesses, ...Eastern Religions, ...New Christian Religions, ...Islam, ...the Science Religions. This know-thy-enemy stance was justified by Erwin Kolb, Executive Secretary of The Board for Evangelism of the Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church, in the following way:

...the books intend to provide help for the Christian who somes [sic] into contact with a specific cult or religious movement and is perhaps the subject of its evangelistic efforts. These books help the Christian to respond - providing information about that particular religious movement, comparing its teachings with the teachings of the Bible, and suggesting ways in which to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord (quoted in Lochhaas, 1981, p. 5).

No doubt, with as much fiery enthusiasm involved as indicated by Edmond Gruss (1979) and the numerous Watchtower-quoting testimonies of his disgruntled ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses. Despite the inherent condescension in this tactic when abused, at least there is strong interest here in the business of information gathering and interfaith discussion. Overall, as K. R. Sundararajan (1986) argued about the limits of the curiosity motive:

Religious dialogue could at best be sustained by curiosity, but curiosity alone is a somewhat superficial ground for serious religious dialogue. Here the "conversation" would last as long as the participants’ curiosity about one another is alive, and the content of "religious dialogue" would largely be an exchange of information about each other’s traditions (pp. 245-246).

However, talking superficially to the newer religions, at least initially, is much better than not talking at all, and it is certainly much better than warring with them later on (see Blombery, 1991, p. 30)! On a more conciliatory note, Yves Raguin (1977) reminded one that:

If we want to start a fruitful dialogue we all have to acknowledge that we are searching. If we have this humble attitude of one who is searching for the real meaning of what he believes, and for the real face of the one in whom he believes, dialogue will be easy with the faithful of other religions (p. 76).

Therefore, let all of us seekers be humble in our search for truth and understanding with each Other.


Only by being honest and open with the Other can fruitful interreligious dialogue begin, let alone continue and flourish. Even if this means acknowledging up-front the potentially darker side of participant’s thoughts, fears and motivations. Once they have been voiced in this frank way, it clears the air for genuine exchanges of information, beliefs and values, and saves one from awkward contortions later on trying to sidestep the known indelicate areas.

The basic taxonomic framework of religious duty, religious self-interest, and dialoguing intent also provides an additional advantage to the practitioner. It enables them to formally identify a potential root source of delegate behaviour that can be addressed quickly and efficiently before it fares up into something wholly undesirable. After all, to be forewarned is to be forearmed. It is therefore recommended that further research be conducted into the grassroots mechanics of dialoguing, especially in this post-Millennial age of increased religious tensions. It is certainly warranted, increasingly needed and long over due.


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Emerging Church Economics

There are too many errors in this book for unsophisticated readers. McLaren’s book has value only to readers who recognize the mistakes but are willing to learn about a position that springs from ideology and a theological framework. For me, the emerging church movement is enough to consider by itself without flawed economics intertwined

Mordecai Kaplan: Rethinking Judaism for the New World

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