Contending Modernities article

A New Beginning

Evangelii Gaudium goes beyond merely providing an introduction to interreligious dialogue from the perspective of the new “Poverello” of Rome, Pope Francis. It is, and I feel sure of this, an emphatic proposal for interreligious dialogue to be reframed as a duty for religious communities, and an essential condition to the establishment and maintenance of peace in the world.

Dialogue as a Duty

Pope Francis’ choice of words in paragraph 250 of his Apostolic Exhortation is of particular importance:

“Interreligious dialogue is a necessary condition for peace in the world, and so it is a duty for Christians as well as for other religious communities”. (250)

In his inaugural official teaching to present and future generations of the Church, Pope Francis’ conclusion that interreligious dialogue “is a duty”, and an imperative for peace is quite simply revolutionary as it posits interreligious dialogue as a responsibility and obligation for Christians and other religious communities alike. Such a statement provides firm grounding for future discourses on interreligious dialogue by explicitly emphasizing its necessity, and moving it from the realm of a few committed experts to that of all Christians.

Since Vatican II, where dialogue became accepted as a responsibility for the Catholic Church, it has generally been considered as a special service of small groups of enlightened Christians. By moving dialogue from being exclusively the realm of well-grounded experts on interreligious matters, to the general population of the Church, Pope Francis raises the stakes—now dialogue is a duty for each Christian and for each person of good will.

I have always been intimately convinced that dialogue is a condition for the living of a committed Christian life, because since the time of Pope Paul VI the understanding of charity has developed to acknowledge that it is rooted in dialogue. Pope Francis takes this further by positioning dialogue as part of each Christian’s vocation in the world. Moreover, Pope Francis, as a faithful follower of Saint Francis of Assisi, conceives the attainment of peace in the world as a duty for Humanity—an inner, spiritual and even dogmatic goal for human beings. Peace—both internal and societal— is, therefore, situated at the heart of faith.

Although Pope Francis presents dialogue as a duty, it is important to recognize the hindrances to dialogue, both interpersonal and structural, in a world that prioritizes economic development and prosperity as the primary means for achieving and maintaining peace. We live in a world of differences—not least, religious differences—and in this context dialogue is hindered by unfamiliarity and distrust. We have to begin with the recognition that the majority of peoples lived experience is one of not feeling naturally disposed to dialogue across divides. That is why Pope Francis speaks in terms of duty. Dialogue may not be comfortable, but it is necessary.

Sharing, above All

Having emphasized the duty and moral imperative of dialogue, Pope Francis moves on to focus on the human heart:

This dialogue is in first place a conversation about human existence or simply, as the bishops of India have put it, a matter of “being open to them, sharing their joys and sorrows”. In this way we learn to accept others and their different ways of living, thinking and speaking. (250)

Duty now becomes an inner necessity—one of the heart. This moral imperative is shown as a human conversation or, put another way, a deep sharing. This is a real development, as dialogue is moved from being a primarily intellectual and superficial exercise to one of real and truthful sharing—be it religious, spiritual, intellectual, or otherwise.

Working and spending time amongst Sufis, I have observed that spiritually-minded people and mystics live this deep level of sharing at a deeper level than many others. Again, this stage of spiritual life assumes a theological value in the eyes of Francis. Dialogue is a conversation about human existence or “being open to others, sharing their joys and sorrows.” When a person is open to others, and shares in their joys and sorrows, he or she no longer lives as before because he or she experiences the richness of Humanity. Here, Pope Francis is theologically consecrating human experience. I have experienced this when partaking in some Muslim celebrations, in particular with Sufis—moments where I have really felt the power of life, the energy of others, and I have been moved by the commitment of another man or woman who have devoted their entire life to spreading Islam. As a Dominican priest, and a deep believer in Christ, I hold fast to “my truth” in Christ—and yet I am able to share their joys and sorrows.  Whoever speaks of sharing really means reciprocity. Sharing—real, authentic and genuine sharing—is the only ground for interreligious dialogue, otherwise any attempt to do so would be just pragmatism or simply polite courtesy.

The principle of reciprocity is reflected in the teachings and spiritual traditions of both Islam and Christianity, and is rooted in deep sharing. When you share, you are together—the other is with you and you are with him. Friendship is, in this perspective, an absolute need for learning to share and to be reciprocal. Friendship needs two people, two societies, two nations, and requires sharing, above all.

The essential nature of dialogue and deep sharing across religious divides is reflected by A. Rashied Omar in his recent blog post: “I believe that it should be the responsibility of faith leaders, Christians, Muslims and those of other faiths, to offer deeper and far more ethically and scripturally grounded visions of a truly humanistic and compassionate world and to make strategic interventions to shift the balance in favor of such genuine morality.”

From Sharing to Action

Sharing must lead to action: a real and deep initiative. The dogmatic goal of interreligious dialogue, lived through sharing experienced in a broader human community, gives space for action.  As Pope Francis states, “Efforts made in dealing with a specific theme can become a process in which, by mutual listening, both parts can be purified and enriched. These efforts, therefore, can also express love for truth.” (250). Only in active service to Humanity can we go back to the dogmatic foundations of interreligious dialogue. If we cannot succeed in constructing real bridges, true peace, shared feelings, and mutual openness, our activities will remain at the level of superficial engagement. Humanity needs women and men who are engaged in the duty of interreligious dialogue lived through profound shared experience with the goal of service to the common good. Pope Francis’ words provide a vision of a world where interreligious dialogue and peace are not exclusive to a minority of believers, or idealistic principles that are far removed from reality.

Interreligious dialogue is not just an academic question—it has very real implications for the establishment of peace in the world. Dialogue needs to be lived and shared by more than just scholars. Pope Francis’ words carry significance for all Christians, and are a call for dialogue through shared experiences, commitments, and actions carried out together.

Alberto Ambrosio
Alberto Fabio Ambrosio is an Italian Dominican priest and a Temporary Teaching and Research Assistant at University of Lorraine. Ambrosio completed his doctoral studies in Modern History at Paris-Sorbonne University in 2007, focusing on the history of Ottoman Sufism. In 2013 he received the Habilitation to teach Theology from the University of Metz. His publications include: Soufisme et christianisme. Entre histoire et mystique (2013); Petite mystique du dialogue (2013); and Vie d’un derviche tourneur.  Doctrine et rituels du soufisme au XVIIe siècle, (2010).

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