Some reservations about inter-faith dialogue

“Religious harmony is not about harmonising religions and beliefs, but about finding harmony between people of diverse religious faiths.”

In these days of increased religiosity, the need for inter-faith dialogue has become more pressing. Yet, for the church, this need has never been an easy thing to acknowledge. The reason is not hard to find: Christians have believed in the uniqueness of the person of Christ, and that the truth claims of their faith are absolute, especially with regard to salvation and the way to God.

Thankfully, many Christians today are able to recognise the value of inter-faith dialogue in bridging the “gap” between religions and fostering peaceful and harmonious co-existence among all people. More would have embraced the way of dialogue but for a number of reservations which are addressed below.

Dialogue: A biblical idea?

Some Christians have little interest in inter-faith dialogue because they do not think there is any biblical warrant for having it.

The assumption that there are very few cases of dialogue in the Bible may be questioned. In point of fact, the Bible has many words which refer to “dialogue”. We only have to recall the many instances of conversation (dialogue) which the prophets have had with various persons to show that dialogue did have a place within the biblical corpus.

Jesus himself is recorded as having question-and-answer sessions with his contemporaries, especially in his encounters with the woman from Samaria and the Syro-Phoenician woman. St. Paul, we are told in Acts 17:2, was at the synagogue in dialogue with the Jews for over three Sabbaths!

Fear of compromise

Another reservation may well be the feeling that genuine dialogue with another religious tradition would lead to a compromise of what one believes to be true. I suspect some Christians, concerned that their participation would involve disloyalty to their own faith commitment, have held back.

It was probably to address this concern that the former Bishop, Dr Robert Solomon, offered this clarification in a speech to church leaders: “Religious harmony is not about harmonising religions and beliefs, but about finding harmony between people of diverse religious faiths.” (Methodist Message, December 2007)

We may put the matter this way: participation in inter-religious activities does not require one to dissolve one’s distinctive beliefs into an imaginary “One World Religion”. To be sure, certain faith leaders may be inclined towards syncretism, but many are equally firm in and convinced of what they believe. These days, those who come to an inter-religious dialogue are expected to come as persons significantly identified with a religious community as well as committed to the faith of that community.

Dialogue: A means of witness?

Another reason why Christians have been wary of inter-faith dialogue is that they have understood such dialogue to eschew evangelism. Admittedly, the primary purpose of dialogue is not conversion but conversation. Yet, in engaging with people of other faiths, opportunities for witness are always present. Even if our dialogue partners are not responsive to our verbal witness, they will come to know us better. As W. A. Visser ’t Hooft says: “The dialogue will be all the richer if both of us give ourselves as we are. For the Christian that giving must include witness.”

Search for understanding, not agreement

There are more reservations about inter-faith dialogue than can be dealt with here. Going forward, I suggest a mind-set change in how we perceive and approach religious dialogue: from viewing it as a means to truth, to embracing it as a means of connecting with fellow human beings.

In this respect, David Lochhead’s advice in his book, The Dialogical Imperative, cannot be more apt:

“Rather than defining dialogue as a search for agreement, it would be more helpful to define dialogue as a search for understanding. To understand another tradition, I do not have to agree with its precepts. I do not have to create ‘common ground’ in order to proceed.”

To positive engagement and meaningful dialogue with our neighbours – let’s proceed!

Picture by STILLFX/

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Lim K Tham is the General Secretary (Hon) of National Council of Churches of Singapore. He is a member of the Presidential Council on Religious Harmony, and worships at Fairfield Methodist Church.