During most of human history, there was no need for inter-religious dialogue. Men and women spent their entire lives in largely homogeneous societies with little or no interest in other cultures, lifestyles and religions. Today, we live in a pluralistic environment in which we must interact with strangers for our livelihood and survival. A timid desire to encounter “the other” grows steadily despite the objections of more conservative elements of society.
Quite naturally, any effort to embrace the neighbor’s worldview and traditions is limited by fear, especially where religion is concerned. The challenge to preserve one’s own identity while engaging with the other’s can be daunting. It is reassuring, therefore, to learn that trailblazers who have ventured to engage in authentic dialogue suggest that it is possible to reconcile what is important and assimilate what may be lacking in our own tradition.
Many see such encounters as necessary. One author writes, “Real dialogue will be a purification of each one’s own faith, not indeed in its essence which is pure gold, but of the alloy with which it is always mixed.” I have believed this to be so for most of my adult life. I have understood the movement of the Holy Spirit to be like “a wind that blows wherever it pleases,” unrestrained by theological models and religious practices. It is inconceivable for me that God would not be a part, in some fashion or another, of each society’s history and present circumstances, and each person’s desire to act virtuously.
The task facing anyone who engages in true dialogue is to staunchly preserve what is good and necessary, and courageously shed what blocks the acceptance of wisdom from strangers that God brings across our path. For many years now, especially for Catholics since the 1960s, people have experimented and theorized about the criteria that are necessary for dialogue. Each of their observations merit our attention, but none is as critical as the need to encounter “the other” with respect that tends toward love. All other criteria for success flow from this primary virtue. Love makes dialogue both necessary and possible. Without it, we quickly run into obstacles that we come to justify. Critics argue that dialog inevitably leads to the collapse of religious foundations. Such fears are not founded on a proper understanding of true dialogue, which requires both confidence and courage. Authentic encounter never impoverishes truth.
I recently returned from India where I spent five weeks immersed in a culture that has been steeped in Hindu philosophy for more than six thousand years. Certainly there are other influences, including Christianity that came with European colonialism and Islam that has endured since the time of Moghul rulers, but the sheer weight of the Hindu population and the sensory richness of Hindu devotion has a pervasive affect on daily life there. I was particularly eager to experience the encounter of Hinduism with Catholicism. I found much more openness than I expected from either side. Despite the dissimilarities in theological structures, I was delighted by the shared reverence toward the divine.
I was conscious of travelling in a country that had once fascinated such eminent Western seekers as Jules Monchanin, Henri Le Saux and Bede Griffiths. Le Saux, known affectionately in India as Swami Abhishiktananda, tied two principles from Hindu philosophy to a deeper understanding of the Christian gospel in general and monastic life in particular, namely advaita and sannyasa. The first resists the western dualistic tendency and promotes the notion of ultimate one-ness. The second urges radical simplicity or asceticism as the most efficacious spiritual path.
I too was intrigued by advaita, which is not a word one hears commonly, but it can be detected in the sub-text of what is said about Indian spirituality and which strikes me as an essential part of Christ’s message. Yet it is not accessible to us through Greco-Roman categories alone. Exploration of the depths of advaita reveals that the complementarity of religions is more important than their compatibility. Complementarity does not seek the fulfillment of one doctrine in the other. It humbly acknowledges the limitations of a particular line of sight and the necessity of completion that is available only from the other’s perspective. To discover this is a grace.
One author suggests that we return to the source of each religion – to the original religious intuition and there we will find a common spirit, the starting point of divergent histories. That mystical vision is the shared heritage of humanity and its salvation. That deep pre-rational knowing of Ultimate Reality is where all people may find unity. Histories account for identity, which creates distinctiveness that can never be denied, but neither should these ever resist the powerful attraction that the unifying principle or Spirit represents. The identity of trees of various species would not exist without the soil into which their roots intertwine.
Not everyone would agree with this view. Hindus have every reason to be skeptical about the motives of Westerners, chiefly Europeans. Some see dialogue as disguised proselytism, taking advantage of Hinduism’s inherent openness to other spiritual paths. On the other hand, some Christians say that dialogue inevitably leads to synchronism or relativism. Our hope comes from a conviction that abuses and distortions are not only possible; they are inevitable, but these do not invalidate the pursuit of one Spirit that flows through everything and everybody. As one author writes, for those who trust that the risks are more than offset by the necessity, the experience is a liberating one.
The other principle that fascinated Le Saux, Griffiths and others is sannyasa, which is associated with holy men living without property or possessions. Sannyasa resonates with the apophatic tradition of Christian monasticism and the mendicant orders. In fact, Le Saux pointed to Saint Francis as the exemplar of Christian sannyasa. In Renewal of the Indian Church, he envisaged sannyasa as “the self-same spirit that animated Francis of Assisi and his first companions going from village to village in utter poverty, living on alms, singing their love for the Lord and calling all to share in their radiating bliss.” Even though such a radical example is unlikely to be followed by more than a handful of people in our own times, his reference to Saint Francis demonstrates that the call to utter simplicity remains compelling because it contains the seed of holiness. The deeper we are drawn into the nexus of simplicity, the easier it is to live virtuously.
What made this journey spiritual were the encounters with people of my own and other faiths, and the experience of everyday life in an ancient and wonder-filled land that shattered whatever barriers there may have been at the start. Each of my senses feasted. My mind sang and my emotions danced. I felt connected, powerfully connected, though uncertain about what with. It will take me some time to process this experience. India taught me many things. I’m already aware of some.
For instance, this encounter reminded me that religion (bhakti and puja for Hindus, and various forms of liturgy and private devotion for Christians) can be effective in grounding and nourishing spirituality, but these can also become substitutes for interiority and virtue. This temptation is not limited to any single faith tradition. The inclination to view ourselves in a hermetically sealed relationship with the divine or to use devotional gestures as quasi-magical acts can be found in all religions. Commitment to concrete moral and ethical values such as justice and compassion is therefore necessary to live spiritually.
Another lesson has to do with social systems. I had gone to India harboring negative prejudices about the role of women, arranged marriages, the caste system and a host of other aspects of Indian life. I naively expected to find evidence that the younger generation was radically rejecting ancient practices that seemed fundamentally unjust to my mind. What I saw instead was slow change. One person told me that it would take two more generations for these things to change. I understood that this was a good thing, that you cannot change one aspect of the social order without impacting all the others. Society is indeed a system, all elements being interdependent. What is a gain for one person is a loss for another. It takes time to adjust to change in order to ensure its success. We need only look at how we have botched efforts at so-called development in Iraq and Afghanistan to understand that true development cannot be achieved by random and hasty measures.
India also finally drove home the value of letting go of the illusion that we can control everything—the time it takes to get somewhere, the amount of energy needed to achieve a task, people, health, the weather, even God. Let go in order to be led. India mocks all efforts to manipulate events and manage outcomes. This country is filled with contradictions that defy the controlling mind and it assaults the senses with this overarching dictum, “Let go.” Trust that there is a friendly universe beyond fear and the reach of your intellect. Sometimes it entices and whispers; sometimes it tortures and screams “LET GO!” It promises nothing but offers everything; it demands nothing, but will settle for nothing less than everything.
I’m often asked what place touched me the most. I have to answer that it was Rishikesh, “scenically located where the Ganges River comes down from the Himalayas,” as one travel guide puts it, known as a center for the study of yoga and meditation. Though many tourists, some like refugees from the sixties, walk along its shop-lined lanes and solitary footpaths every day, it is not crowded or noisy like other places in India. The sky is wider and deeper there. Large hills roll gently toward the distant mountains. River stones are underfoot, rounded by holy water, green with hope, fast and cool. The mind is free to wander to those places back beyond the snow and downstream all the way to the ends of the earth.