A reflection on engaging in online interreligious dialogue – by John Stoer, Member of the Bishops’ Committee For Interreligious Dialogue
As someone new to inter-religious dialogue, I am conscious of how important it is and how difficult it is. I have spent most of my life in a Catholic world: I come from a Catholic family; went to a Catholic school; married a Catholic; and have worked in Catholic education all of my professional life. I do not regret any of this but like many Catholics my experience of people of other religions is limited. I have in recent years, however, become interested in how the Church understands other religions (the theology of religions) and, from a Catholic perspective, inter-religious dialogue.
Pope St John Paul II argued for the need for dialogue with others. Inviting leaders of different religions to come together to pray at Assisi in 1986 is a well-known example and throughout his papacy he exhorted all believers “individually and together, [to] show how religious belief inspires peace, encourages solidarity, promotes justice and upholds liberty” (Vatican City 28/10/1999). Pope Francis continues this work through his own witness and his writings from Evangelii gaudium (2013) to Fratelli tutti (2020).
Four inter-related forms of dialogue are identified in a Vatican document, Dialogue and Mission (1984). They are: dialogue of life, where people strive to live in an open and neighbourly spirit; of action, in which Christians and others collaborate for common good; of theological exchange; and of religious experience. Speaking only for myself, though I suspect for many others as well, through much of my life I have not engaged in any of these four forms of dialogue. I did not prioritise it and had limited opportunity to meet adherents of other religions, even as neighbours. At the same time, I have become increasingly aware of the need for dialogue to inspire peace, encourage solidarity, promote justice and uphold liberty, and I would add, to promote the importance of the religious dimension of life.
In recent years I have, however, had opportunities to engage in dialogue especially with the Shia community in Glasgow, the Ahl Al-Bait Scotland Society. I was a member of a small committee of three Catholics and three Muslims who together organised a Zoom conference on human fraternity. (A recording of the conference can be found on this website). Without question, I learnt from engaging with the three Muslim men on the committee. Their courtesy in both manner and forms of address, the strength of their faith and their participation in their community made me very aware of my need for ongoing conversion.
During the conference Cardinal Fitzgerald, who together with Dr Shomali was a keynote speaker, made reference to Dialogue and Mission and how through dialogue “Christians meet the followers of other religious traditions in order to walk together toward truth and to work together in projects of common concern” (DM 13). In my limited experience, working together is much easier than “walking together towards truth”. In the committee everyone was focused on one outcome, the best possible conference given the limits of lockdown, with everyone keen to ensure an appropriate balance between Christian and Muslim, and that the conference really was a joint effort. The two speakers shared this goal, and in their talks and dialogue it was evident that both Christians and Muslims have much in common in their desire to work for the good of all. At the same time, I am aware of barriers. Some are social, political and cultural – barriers which exist between Catholics as well -but every time I attempt to understand something religious or ‘doctrinal’ in another religion I am always conscious of difference: different starting points and taken-for-granted assumptions such as who Jesus is, the place of sacred texts, and how to arrive at a moral and ethical position. I suspect that in “walk[ing] together towards truth” I am only just beginning to crawl.